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The Classic Jewish Philosophers

Supplements to The Journal of

Jewish Thought and Philosophy
Edited by

Leora Batnitzky (Princeton University)

Christian Wiese (University of Sussex)
Elliot Wolfson (New York University)


The Classic Jewish

From Saadia through the Renaissance


Eliezer Schweid
translated by

Leonard Levin


This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on

ISBN 1873-9008
ISBN 978 90 04 16213 6
Copyright 2007 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Koninklijke Brill NV incorporates the imprints Brill, Hotei Publishing,
IDC Publishers, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers and VSP.
Originally published as Ha-Filosom ha-Gedolim Shelanu
All rights reserved Miskal/Yediot Aharonot Books, 1999, Tel-Aviv.
Translations of Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed are taken from Moses Maimonides,
The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. by Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press: 1963, reprinted in 2 volumes, 1974). Reprinted with kind permission of the
University of Chicago Press.
1963, 1974 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
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printed in the netherlands


Acknowledgements ..................................................................... xix

Translators Preface ..................................................................... xxi
Introduction ................................................................................ xxvii



Chapter One R. Saadia Gaon ...............................................
His Life ................................................................................
His Fields of Productivity ........................................................
Torah and Commentary ...........................................................
His Polemical Works ...............................................................
The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs ....................................
The Name of the Book ............................................................
Three Sources of Knowledge: Sense, Reason and Inference ............
What is Rationalism? .............................................................
TraditionThe Fourth Source of Knowledge ..............................
What is the Role of Reliable Tradition? .....................................
Seeking Agreement of Reason and Religion ..................................
Reason and Revelation Serve Each Other ....................................
The Order of Deliberation in the Book of Doctrines and Beliefs .....
Prophecy and Commandments ..............................................
Rational and Positive (= Arbitrary) Imperatives ..........................
The Need for Prophecy .............................................................
The Source and Inuence of the Manifestation Doctrine ............
Verication of Prophecy ...........................................................
Creation and Gods Existence .............................................
Creation as a Foundational Theological Principle .........................
Maimonidess Criticism of Saadias Doctrine of Creation ..............
Kalam and Aristotelianism in Muslim Philosophy ........................
Saadias Funamental Assumption: Cause Precedes Effect ..............
Proofs for Creation of the World ................................................
Creation ex nihilo and Gods Existence .....................................



God as Cause of the World ......................................................
God Is Not Conceivable ............................................................
Saadias Relation to Scripture ...................................................
Gods Positive Attributes and Conception of a Personal God ...........
The Good God .......................................................................
Saadias Anthropology ........................................................
Importance of the Terrestrial World ...........................................
The Righteous Suffer, the Wicked Prosper ....................................
The Role of Human Material Existence ....................................
Free Will and the Problem It Raises ...........................................
Physical Theory of the Soul .....................................................
Saadias Ethics .......................................................................
Mans Obligation to God ..........................................................
The Ladder of Righteousness ....................................................
Repentance .............................................................................
The Purpose of Serving God .....................................................
The Middle Way ....................................................................
The Supremacy of Reason ........................................................


Chapter Two R. Isaac ben Solomon Israeli .............................

Israelis Status as Philosopher ...................................................
His Writings ..........................................................................
The Source of the Doctrine of Emanation ...................................
Israelis Doctrine of Emanation ................................................
Israelis Picture of the World ....................................................
The Difculty in Understanding the Transition from Spiritual to
Material ............................................................................
Prophecy ................................................................................
Israelis Place in Jewish Philosophy ...........................................


Chapter Three R. Baya ben Joseph Ibn Pakudah .................

The Author ............................................................................
The Book and Its Transmission .................................................
Reliance on Saadia ..................................................................
Differences between Baya and Saadia ........................................
Intellectual Understanding as a Goal in Contrast to Popular
Organized Religion ..............................................................
The Divine Attributes ..............................................................
The Meaning of the Mitzvot: Duties of the Heart versus Duties
of the Limbs ....................................................................






A Stranger in the World: The Opposition of Body and Soul ..........

The Way to Perfection .............................................................
The Gate of Divine Service ......................................................
The Gate of Trust ..................................................................
The Gate of Unifying Ones Deeds ............................................
The Gate of Humility .............................................................
The Gate of Repentance ..........................................................
The Gate of Abstinence ...........................................................
The Gate of Love of God ........................................................
Summary ...............................................................................


Chapter 4 R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol .........................................

Gabirols Philosophical Thought ................................................
The FOUNTAIN OF LIFE .................................................................
Gabirols Sources ....................................................................
The Structure of the Book ........................................................
The General Truth: The Human Being as Microcosm .................
The Three Domains of Knowledge ............................................
The Threefold Division Embraces All Knowledge .........................
The First Domain of Knowledge: Matter and Form ....................
The Difference between Gabirol and Aristotle ...............................
Levels of the Hierarchy ............................................................
The Relation of Matter and Form .............................................
Artistic BeautyPhilosophical Weakness ...................................
Theory of the Will .................................................................
Religious Signicance of the Will ..............................................
Ethics as a Means ..................................................................
Parallel between the Body and the Physical World ........................
The Royal Crown .................................................................
Gabirols Poetic Side ................................................................
The Personal (Biblical) View and the Supra-Personal (Neo-Platonic)
View .................................................................................
Poetry as the More Faithful Expression of Ibn Gabirol .................


Chapter Five R. Abraham Bar iyya ......................................

His Writings ..........................................................................
His Place in the History of Learning .........................................
The Historical Background ......................................................
The Philosophical BackgroundPlatonic or Aristotelian? .............
The Relation of Torah and Philosophy .......................................




Negating the Religions of the Gentiles and the Gentiles
Themselves ........................................................................
Israels Special Status ..............................................................
His Conception of History .......................................................
Determinism ..........................................................................

Chapter Six R. Judah Halevi ...................................................

The Relation of His Philosophical and Poetic Writings ................
The KUZARI ...............................................................................
The Internal Confrontation .......................................................
The Confrontation with Philosophy ............................................
The Polemical Motive in the Kuzari ..........................................
Halevis Sources ......................................................................
Structure of Dialogue in the KUZARI ...................................
Examples from Part 3 ..............................................................
The General Structure of the Book .............................................
The Progression of Argument in the Book ...................................
The Frame Narrative: Why the Khazars? ..................................
The Ideal Student and Teacher ..................................................
Foundations of Religion ......................................................
The Kings First Mistake: Inviting the Philosopher and His Speech
The Basis of Halevis Method: The Opposition between
Philosophy and Religion .......................................................
The Kings First Response ........................................................
The Point of the Confrontation: The Validity of Belief in
Revelation ..........................................................................
The Kings Second Mistake ......................................................
The Christian and Moslem Positions .........................................
The Demand for Historical Certainty ..............................
The Opposition between Philosophy and Religion .........................
Attack on the Authenticity of Christianity and Islam .....................
Deviant Sects in Judaism .........................................................
Verication of the Sinaitic Revelation .........................................
The Most Ironic Turn in the Comedy of Errors ...........................
The Contrast between Judaisms Importance and Its Lowly
Status ...............................................................................
The Nature of the Paradox: Particular Experience, but Universally
Valid .................................................................................
The Historical Verication of the Sinai Revelation .......................


Halevis Historical Outlook ..............................................
Judaism is the Foundation of Human Culture .............................
The Importance of Study of History ..........................................
Removing the Motive of Sin from the Historical Narrative .............
IsraelThe Heart of the Nations .............................................
The Meaning of Suffering and Exile ..........................................
Halevis Vision of the Present ...................................................
The Divine Principle and Prophecy ................................
The Substantive Difference between Israel and the Nations .............
The Prophets Religious Superiority to the Philosopher ...................
The Philosophical Basis ...........................................................
Developing an Epistemology of Prophecy ....................................
The Divine Perfections .............................................................
Ranks of Prophetic Experience ..................................................
The Purpose and Value of Jewish Practice .......................
Correct Religious Practice .........................................................
Active Living in the Religious Realm .......................................
The Golden Mean ...................................................................
Intellectual Life is Subordinate to Religious Purpose ......................
Submission Leads to Exaltation .................................................
The Reasons for the CommandmentsAids to Spiritual
Harmony ...........................................................................
Summary of Halevis Position Against Philosophy ............
The Preference for Debate with Aristotelianism .............................
The Basis of the Debate with Philosophy ...................................
How Reliable is Reason? .........................................................
What Is Philosophys Domain of Validity? .................................
Re-examining the Philosophers Speech ........................................
The Source of Halevis Arguments Against the Philosophers ...........
Conclusion of the Kuzari ........................................................
Summary ...............................................................................



Chapter Seven Maimonidess Personality & Oeuvre ...............
Maimonidess Life ...................................................................


A Universal Personality: Legal Authority, Communal Leader,
Philosopher ........................................................................
Synthesis of Tradition and Philosophy: A Source of Controversy ....
Survey of Principal Works .......................................................
The Book of Prophecy and the Book of Correspondence ........
The Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed ...............
Theological Dogma within the Law of the Ideal State ...................
The Mishneh Torah as a Halakhic Work ...............................
Guide to the Perplexed: Reconciling Torah and Philosophy ....
The Importance of Religious Law: Ordering Individual and Social
Life ...................................................................................
The Mishneh Torah: The Republic and the Laws ................
The Source of Tension in Maimonidess Thought .........................
Differences with Kalam ............................................................
Maimonidess Relation to the Previous Tradition of Jewish
Thought ............................................................................
The Relation between Tradition and Philosophy ...........................
Maimonidess Relation to His Jewish Predecessors .......................

Chapter Eight Maimonidess Earlier Philosophical Writings

The Introductions to the Mishnah .....................................
General Introduction ................................................................
Introduction to Sanhedrin, Chapter 10 (elek) ............................
Five Traditional Jewish Understandings of World To Come .......
Understanding the Traditional Views .........................................
Views Literally Accepted ..........................................................
Views Accepted Not Literally but Figuratively ..............................
The Role of the Thirteen Principles: Attaining a Portion in the
World to Come ...................................................................
The Thirteen Principles ...........................................................
Theological Principles ..............................................................
Torahitic Principles .................................................................
Principles of Reward and Punishment (Political Principles) ...........
The Order and Structure of the Principles ...............................
How the Principles Relate to Philosophy and Common Sense
Understanding ....................................................................
Agenda: Politics, Psychology, Ethics, Prophecy, Theology ..............
Chapter Nine Maimonides Politics, Psychology & Ethics .......
Politics ...................................................................................



Platonic Theory of the State .....................................................
Mans Egoistic Nature Requires Political Subordination ................
Politician and Prophet as Legislators ..........................................
Purpose of Laws: Benet of the Community ..............................
Psychology .............................................................................
Aristotelian Psychology .............................................................
Emphasizing the Souls Unity ...................................................
The Aspects of the Soul ...........................................................
The Nutritive Faculty ..............................................................
The Sensory Faculty ................................................................
The Imaginative Faculty ..........................................................
The Emotional Faculty ............................................................
Reason ..................................................................................
Practical Reason .....................................................................
Theoretical Reason ..................................................................
Intellect as the Souls Form .......................................................
The Actualization of Reason ....................................................
The Final Process of Enlightenment, Highest Goal of Humanity:
The Acquired Intellect ..........................................................
Achieving Eternal Knowledge ....................................................
The Meaning of Immortality: Intellect as Mans Eternal Part ......
Ethics ......................................................................................
Ethics Deals with the Souls Perfection ........................................
The Object of Ethical Discourse: Habit or Virtue .......................
The Domain of Ethics: The Emotional Faculty and the Senses that
Serve It .............................................................................
The Emotional Faculty ............................................................
The Supreme Goal of Humanity: Developing Theoretical
Reason ..............................................................................
The Nature and Cause of Evil ..................................................
Human Free Will and Its Limits ...............................................
Refuting the Pseudo-Scientic Belief in Astrology .........................
Rabbinic and Scriptural Pronouncements .....................................
The Question of Choice in its Philosophical Formulation ..............
The Contradiction Between Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will ....
The Golden Mean ...................................................................
Difculties Arising from the Schematic Character of the Mean ........
The Purpose of Ethical Conduct ...............................................
Divergence From Aristotle: From Eudaemonism to Austerity .........
The Differences Between Philosophical and Religious Ethics ..........



Positive and Conventional Commandments ..................................
Ethics As Prerequisite to Prophecy ..............................................
Ethical Perfection As Prerequisite to Prophecy in Maimonides .........


Chapter Ten Maimonidess Theory of Prophecy ....................

Image of the Prophet as Ideal Leader .........................................
Prophet as Paragon of Acquired Intellect .....................................
Prophet as Ethical Exemplar ....................................................
Criteria for Distinguishing Grades of Prophecy ............................
Psycho-Physical Uniqueness of Mosess Prophecy ........................
The Prophet-Philosopher and the Biblical Prophet ........................
Revelation of Divine Will in Prophecy .......................................
What Is the Difference between Prophet and Philosopher? ..............


Chapter Eleven Foundations of Maimonidess Theology .......

The Four Principal Proofs for Gods Existence .............................
Departures from Aristotle ..........................................................
Proofs for Gods Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality ......................
Thinking Correctly about God ...................................................
What is True Belief ? ..............................................................
Refutation of All Positive Divine Attributes .................................
Refutation of All Types of Divine Attributes ...............................
The Dialectic of Negative Attributes ..........................................
Reconsidering the Kalams Doctrine of Attributes ..........................
The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy ....................................
From Negating Deciencies to Afrming Perfections .......................
Radical Incommensurability of God and World ...........................
Positive and Negative Attributes Pertaining to God ........................
Progress in the Knowledge of God ..............................................
The Via Negativa ...................................................................
Maimonidess Dialectic ............................................................
Dialectical Consideration of the Divine Attributes .........................
Each According to Ones Level of Understanding ..........................
Resolving the Contradictions ......................................................
Content of the Illumination ......................................................
The Dialectical Thought-Process beyond the Attribute-Doctrine ......
The Attribute of Existence .......................................................
Receiving the Divine Emanation ................................................
The Essential Difference between Philosopher and Prophet .............
Mosess Unique Achievement .....................................................




Reconciling Two Views of the Prophet .......................................

Mosess Uniqueness as Prophet: Withdrawal from the Material .....


Chapter Twelve Creation and Providence in Maimonides ......

God As Creator and World-Guide .....................................
God as the Unity of Intellect, Knower and Known .......................
Philosophy as Authentic Torah-Tradition ....................................
Creation and the Divine Will ....................................................
Divine Will in Guide Part II ...................................................
God as Origin of Form and Matter ...........................................
Summary ...............................................................................
Creation Ex Nihilo ................................................................
The Assumption of Creation .....................................................
Different Views on Creation ......................................................
What Led Aristotle to his View? ................................................
Maimonidess Arguments against Aristotle ...................................
Which Argument is More Convincing? .......................................
Difculties with Aristotelian Cosmology ......................................
Which Difculties are Greater? ..................................................
The Deciding Factor: The Torahitic Consideration .......................
Miracles ................................................................................
Maimonidess View of Providence .......................................
The Problem of Divine Providence .............................................
The Philosophical Problem with Providence .................................
Providence and the Problem of Evil ............................................
The Source of Evil in Nature and Human Nature ........................
Different Views on Providence ....................................................
Maimonidess View: A Synthesis of the Mosaic and Aristotelian
Views? ..............................................................................
The Medium of Providence ......................................................
Divine Knowledge and Its Connection with Providence ...................
Hermeneutic Inquiry on Providence in Job ...................................
The Commandments Express the Divine-Human Relation .............
Providence and the Prophetic Mission .........................................
The Prophet and Torah as Vehicles of Providence .........................


Chapter Thirteen


Summary of Maimonidean Thought .........





Chapter Fourteen The Maimonidean Controversy .................
Propagation of the Guides Inuence ..........................................
The Substance of the Controversy Over Maimonidess Teaching ......
Essential Points of Critique of Maimonidess Views ....................
Responses of Maimonidess Students ...................................
R. Shem Tov ben Joseph Ibn Falaquera (12251295) ..........
Reconciling Philosophy and the Torah .........................................
How can the Torah be Interpreted by Reason Yet Stand above It? ....
Propagation of Philosophy and the Educational Task ....................
His Interpretative Work: Avoiding Philosophical Perplexity ...........
R. Joseph Ibn Kaspi ................................................................
R. Isaac Albalag ...................................................................
Albalags Critique of Maimonides .............................................
Why Should These Matters be Revealed? ....................................
Prophecy and PhilosophyTwo Different Aspects of
Understanding ....................................................................


Chapter Fifteen Transformations in Aristotelian Philosophy ..

Averroess Theory of Emanation ...............................................
Averroess Criticism .................................................................
The Inuence of Christian Scholasticism of the 13th Century ........
Christianity as a Theological Problem ........................................
The Inuence of Kabbalah .......................................................
Summary ...............................................................................


Chapter Sixteen Gersonides ....................................................

Gersonidess Stance toward Maimonides: Appreciation and
Criticism ...........................................................................
Gersonidess Scientic Achievements ............................................
Gersonidess Unique Theory of Creation ..........................
Gersonidess Concept of Time ...................................................
The Difculty with the Solution of the Problem of Creation:
the Eternity of Matter .........................................................
Theological Difculties .............................................................
Gersonidess Theology .........................................................
Rejecting Maimonidess Doctrine of Negative Attributes ................






Gods Knowledge of the World and His Creatures ........................

The Problem of Providence .......................................................
Explanation of Miracle ...........................................................
The Problem of Prophecy .........................................................
Human Nature and Destiny .................................................
Human Purpose: Perfect Knowledge of Eternal Truth ..................
Immortality ............................................................................
Views on Immortality Analyzed .................................................
Aristotelian Critique of Individualism ........................................
How Can Individuality Exist Apart from the Body? .....................
Summary ...............................................................................


Chapter Seventeen R. asdai Crescas ....................................

Crescas as Conservative and Innovator ........................................
The Cultural-Historical Background to Crescass Project ...............
The Change in Jewrys Status in Christian Spain ........................
Spiritual Tensions in the Spanish-Jewish Community ...................
A Conservative Synthesis ..........................................................
His Teacher, His Colleague, and His Disciple ..................
R. Nissim Gerondi ..................................................................
The Polemic against Christianity ...............................................
R. Nissims Critique of the Philosophers .....................................
The Commandments as a Demonstration of Obedience .................
R. Isaac ben Sheshet (Ribash) ...............................................
Ribashs Approach to Kabbalah .................................................
Ribashs Approach to Philosophy and Science ...............................
R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran .................................................
Durans Method of Jewish Dogmatics ........................................
The Teaching of R. asdai Crescas ...................................
Crescass Doctrine of Principles of Faith ....................................
Belief in Gods Existence .........................................................
Order of Importance of the Principles ........................................
The Doctrine of Principles as Framework of Crescass Thought .....
Crescass Theology ..............................................................
Crescass Critical Method .........................................................
The Existence of an Innite Magnitude .....................................
A New Concept of Time and Space ...........................................
Removing Physics from the Realm of Religious Thought ...............
Critique of Maimonidess Doctrine of Negative Attributes .............
How can We Describe God without Ascribing Plurality to
Him? ................................................................................




What Are Essential Attributes? .................................................

Primary Attributes ..................................................................
Attributes That Follow Necessarily from the Concept of God as
Cause of Existence ..............................................................
The Problem of Relation between Divine Unity and Multiple
Attributes ...........................................................................
Philosophic Knowledge and Prophetic Knowledge ..........................
Divine Incorporeality ...............................................................
The Source of the Difculty: Gods Joy in Creation ......................
Creation of the World .......................................................
Review of Maimonidess Doctrine of Creation .............................
Review of Gersonidess Doctrine of Creation ...............................
The Kabbalistic Doctrine of Creation .........................................
Crescass Doctrine of Creation ..................................................
How can the Continual Be Renewed? .........................................
The World as Symbol of Gods Internal Life ...............................
Miracle ..................................................................................
Miracle as Exceptional Event ...................................................
Providence .............................................................................
Critique of Gersonides and Maimonides .....................................
Degrees of Providence ..............................................................
Judaism and Christianity .........................................................
Human Free Will and Its Limits ...............................................
Service of God ........................................................................
Parallel between Torah and Creation ..........................................
Worship and Love of God in Exacting Halakhic Study .................
Summary .................................................................................


Chapter Eighteen R. Joseph Albo ............................................

The Book of Principles as a Reection of Its Age ....................
Albos Life and Writings ..........................................................
ALBOS DOGMATICS: The Principles ............................................
The Axioms of the Science of Religion ....................................
The Types of Religion: Natural, Conventional, and Divine ...........
Premises of Divine Law (= Religion) ........................................
Secondary Roots (Shorashim) .................................................
Beliefs Connected with the Principle ........................................
Summary of the Dogmatic Discussion ........................................
Albos Argument against the Philosophers and
Christianity ...........................................................................






Maimonides and the Aristotelian Concept of Belief .......................

Crescas and The Kabbalistic Concept of Faith ............................
Compromise between Maimonides and Crescas .........................
How Does One Distinguish True and False Belief ? ......................
What Experience Veries Religious Belief ? ..................................
Basing the Mosaic Torah on Experience ......................................
The Uniqueness of the Mosaic Torah ........................................


Chapter Nineteen The Turn To Cultural Thought .................

History as an Object of Philosophical Discussion .........................
R. Solomon Ibn Verga ..........................................................
The Causes of Blood-Libels and Judeo-Phobia ...........................
Reasons for the Jews Military Defeats .......................................
Reasons for Persecution of the Jews ............................................
A Tolerant Outlook toward Christianity ......................................
Don Isaac Abravanel ............................................................
Abravanels Literary Oeuvre ......................................................
Abravanels Historical Outlook ..................................................
Abravanels Relation to Maimonidess Theory of Prophecy ............
Abravanels View of Maimonidess Dogmatic Theory ...................
Abravanels Relation to Civilization and State .............................


Chapter Twenty From Spain to Italy .......................................

The Beginnings of Italian Jewish Thought .......................
R. Jacob Anatoli and R. Hillel of Verona ...................................
R. Judah Messer Leon .............................................................
Influence of the Renaissance in Italy ................................
Elijah Del Medigo ..................................................................
R. Judah Abravanel ................................................................
The Literary Character of the Dialogues of Love .....................
The Philosophical Content of the Dialogue .................................
The Pagan Sources of R. Judah Abravanels Thought ..................
Summary .................................................................................


Bibliography ................................................................................
Index of Names ............................................................................
Index of Topics .............................................................................



The basis of this book is a lecture course on medieval Jewish philosophy

that I delivered under the aegis of the Department of Jewish Thought
at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 196669.
My notes were published in three booklets by the Academon of the
Students Union, for the use of the students of the department. Four
of my students helped to prepare them: Gilead Bareli, Shimon Levi,
Dan Orion, and Zila Copenhagen. I thank them wholeheartedly.
However, this book is not merely a compilation of those lectures.
It was rewritten and rearranged on the basis of my rethinking and
researching these topics in depth over the course of the intervening
My major focus of research and teaching in that time has been the
history of modern Jewish philosophy. Still, my interest in medieval
thought has not lessened but grown stronger. It gave a fresh perspective
to my outlook on modern Jewish thought, for the philosophical classics
of the middle ages provide a primary source for modern Jewish thought
to our very day. This book was written from that perspective, and if
it has anything unique to offer in its method and general approach,
that is its source.
The initiative for writing this book came from the editor of the
Yedioth series Judaism: Past and Present, Yochi Brandes, my former
student in Jewish thought at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies
in Jerusalem. I thank her wholeheartedly for making the proposal and
for her assistance and enthusiastic encouragement during the writing,
as well as for the meticulous and devoted labor that she invested in
editing this work.
Eliezer Schweid
Jerusalem, 12 Elul 5759
August 24, 1999


The Classic Jewish Philosophers is a translation of Eliezer Schweids

Hebrew work Ha-Filosom ha-Gedolim Shelanu (Our [ Jewish] Great
Philosophers). This work is part of Schweids larger enterprise to tell
the story of Jewish thoughtmainly its philosophical formulationsin
all periods, ancient, medieval and modern. The ancient part of the
narrative nds expression in The Philosophy of the Bible, a philosophical interpretation of the thought-world of the Bible following in the
footsteps of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel
and the modern literary school of Biblical interpreters. The modern
part is the subject of his ve volumes of The History of Modern Jewish
Religious Philosophywhich have appeared in Hebrew and which I will
endeavor to translate in the coming yearsmarking the culmination
of his scholarly project, of which this volume is the foundation.
In the 1960s, Eliezer Schweid was teaching the history of medieval
Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, as a junior scholar under the
guidance of Professors Shlomo Pines, Gershom Scholem, Yitzak Baer
and Natan Rotenstreich. From them he learned the craft of reconstructing the narrative of the Jewish thought of the past from documentary
materials; however, he sensed a difference from them in the existential
motivation of his scholarly efforts, as he describes in a recent lecture,
My Way in the Research and Teaching of Jewish Thought.1 His teachers were religiously devoted to objective pursuit of the scientic truth
without tint of subjective interest, a devotion which, Schweid thought,
was rooted in their own existential situation of having to prove the
value of Jewish thought and culture in the context of a gentile (especially German) academic world which was a priori prone to denigrate it.
Thus these scholars (argues Schweid), to avoid the charge of personal
interest, cultivated an exaggerated standard of scholarly objectivity that
renounced any connection between the scholars professional pursuit
of truth and their own religious or cultural preoccupations as Jews. To
reinforce this separation, they concentrated their scholarly efforts on the

Darki be-mekarah uve-horaxatah shel mashevet Yisrael, lecture, published in Limmud vaDaat be-Mashavah Yehudit Volume 2, 2006, edited by Haim Kreisel.


translators preface

pre-modern period, believing that only with the detachment of historical

distance was it possible to maintain that objectivity that allowed them
to speak dispassionately about the historical realities of the past.
Schweid himself, on the other hand, grew up in that Yishuv-culture in
Palestine of the 1930s and 1940s which sought to live a secular Jewish
existence whose ethos was proclaimed by Ahad Ha-am and Bialik, but
whose members were often ignorant of the historical and ideological
underpinnings of traditional Jewish culture and had to become reconnected with them in order to provide the educational underpinnings
for living out their own modern Jewish cultural existence. Personal
experience convinced the young Schweid that the modern Jewish-Israeli
culture could not succeed spiritually and morally in its goals without
guidance from the historical and philosophical wisdom of the past,
and he therefore made the personal decision to turn to the intensive
study of the Jewish intellectual-cultural past. For Schweid, therefore,
there was an a priori mutual relevance between the material one was
studying and ones own quest for moral and religious orientation. By
the same token, Schweid (as well as his mentor Rotenstreich) found it
legitimate to extend scholarly research into the modern period, and
he became one of the pioneers of the study and teaching of modern
Jewish religious thought in the Department of Jewish Thought at the
Hebrew University (which under Guttmann and Scholem had been
called the Department of Hebrew Philosophy and Kabbalah).
In my own view, it is the perennial task of all religious philosophy to
strive for a holistic vision in which the realms of is and oughtthe
description of reality, and our conception of our own task and purpose
within itnd harmonious integration. The articulation of this vision
in the Biblical period was largely mythic and unselfconscious, taking
for granted the cosmological assumptions of ancient Israels cultural
neighbors and grafting onto that cosmology the monotheistic vision of
God and the ethical imperatives of the Biblical legislators and prophets.
The history of rabbinic Jewish thought is properly to be viewed as the
response of the rabbis to the dual backdrop of the Biblical legacy and
the challenge of Greek and Roman thought-culture, and it has been
treated in this perspective by such scholars as Isaac Heinemann, Saul
Lieberman, Ephraim Urbach and Shaye Cohen.
Professor Schweid has not given systematic attention to the rabbinic period, with the exception of his writings on Jewish theodicy. He
picks up the thread of narrative here with the Middle Ages, where the
dominant is-description of the world was provided by the Aristotelian

translators preface


philosophical legacy (which had incorporated some neo-Platonic elements), and it was against this backdrop that Jewish thinkers had to
justify the ought-afrmations of the Biblical-rabbinic tradition. The
many different possible ways of providing that integration provide the
central themes of the philosophical approaches of Saadia, Ibn Gabirol,
Halevi, Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, and the other thinkers with
whom Schweid deals in this volume. In his volumes on modern Jewish
thought, Schweid shows how the philosophies of the medieval Jewish
thinkers served as models to the modern Jewish thinkers who had to
achieve similar integrative tasks in their own time.
Another lens which Schweid continually brings to bear on these problems is the theory of culture, which he has independently developed in
a separate work.2 In his view, philosophy and religion are each forms of
thought and expression which seek, each in its own way, to articulate
the life-ideal and values of a society against the backdrop of its material way of life and historical tradition. Challenges and crises occur
especially when one cultural tradition is confronted with anotherin
particular, when traditional Jewish society encountered Greco-Roman
civilization in ancient times, or Christian and Moslem civilizations in
medieval times, or West-European civilization in modern times. In
each of these encounters there was a challenge both on the level of
the is-description and the ought-prescription, as each civilization
presented competing accounts both of the nature of reality and of the
life-ideal and group-narrative to provide moral orientation, with which
Jewish thinkers had to contend.
This brings us down to the contemporary moment, in which (by
implication) every one of usthe reader, author, and translator of this
volume includedmust perform the same task of integration: how can
one live a meaningful and morally-justied life, drawing on the wisdom of the past,
in the context of whatever tradition ( Jewish or non-Jewish) the individual belongs to,
in a world-view shaped by the best available science of our own day, and informed
also by modern humanistic culture in its literary, philosophical and artistic genres?
Though these existential questions do not intrude or disrupt the ow
of the narrative, they are never far beneath the surface of the authors

Schweid articulates his theory of cultureand its permutations in modern Jewish
thoughtmost fully in his book, Likrat Tarbut Yehudit Modernit (The Idea of Jewish Culture:
Its Origins and Development in Modern Times, 1995).


translators preface

awareness, and it is his sensitivity to them that gives life and purpose
to his enterprise.
We should also appreciate that though Schweids own starting-point
was rooted in the particular context of modern Jewish-Israeli existence,
his sympathy has always extended both to the situation of Jews living
in all lands and all times, and to the whole scope of human experience
in all cultures. The pursuit of religious and philosophical meaning is a
universal human enterprise which takes place in the particular forms
of the various human cultures in which religions and philosophies have
been conceived and formulated, of which the Jewish religion and the
Jewish culture are one instance. Thus while the scope of interest is
universal, and the criteria of scholarly justication are those on which
all scholars seek to nd agreement, the existential motive of the inquiry
(in Schweids view) can legitimately draw on each and every inquirers
own human stake in the enterprise, which is rooted in his or her own
personal and cultural situation.
From this perspective, it is clear how the thinkers described in this
volume o er an interesting range of different approaches. There is
rst of all Saadia, the pioneer of systematic thought, whose simple
optimistic rationalistic stance enabled him to claim overall agreement
between reason and revelation, though his proofs would not hold water
for later subtler thinkers. Next there are the neo-PlatonistsIsraeli,
Baya, Ibn Gabirolwhose poetic visions of a cosmic chain of being
were poetically enthralling and gave inspiration to later generations of
mystics. Then come the nationalistsin Schweids reading, these include
Abraham Bar iyya and Judah Haleviwho privilege the moment of
direct encounter between the worshipper and God over philosophical
cogitation, and situate it in a universal historical drama in which the
Jewish people are seen to play a unique, central role.
The central gure in medieval Jewish thoughtMaimonidesoccupies a third of the current work. He is the most controversial Jewish
thinker, for medievals and moderns alike, for at least three reasons:
(1) the radical ambition of his thought challengedand continues to
challengethose comfortably settled in a traditional stance; (2) his
deliberate ambiguity and indirection of expression invites multiple
readings; and (3) the canonical prestige of his work tempts thinkers of
many different persuasions to bolster their own positions by identifying
with him and reading his statements as support for their own.
The agenda for the modern Maimonidean controversy was set by
the late Leo Strauss, in two main steps. In Law and Philosophy (1937), he

translators preface


claimed that one should read Maimonides (and Moses in Maimonidess

portrayal) as exercising the role of Platos philosopher-king, presenting
religious doctrine and law alike to perform the political function of
guiding the people to happiness in this world and the next. In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss went further and suggested that the
inconvenient truths of the philosophernamely, its contradiction with
the received doctrines of religionhad to be kept from the nave reader
by an esoteric technique of writing, in which the plain sense of the text
is a cover for a very different meaning.
Schweids reading of Maimonides wrestles with Strausss double challenge. He accepts Strausss rst point, but mostly rejects the second,
though the two are related. This, in turn, is shaped by Schweids own
conception of the political task of religious philosophy today. Especially
in the current age, when the cat is out of the bag and there are no longer
any esoteric secrets, it would undermine the normative guiding role of
religious philosophy altogether to allow that the correct is-description
of the world is at irreconcilable odds with the ought-prescription.
Maimonidess God, like Einsteins, is subtle but not malicious: the
philosophical truth is hard for common people to understand, but
when it is properly understood, it conrms Gods benevolence, wisdom
and justice on a more profound level than the common person naively
understands it, but not ultimately in contradiction to that understanding. Though the Maimonidean formulation of the reconciliation of is
and ought would require additional renement in the modern age
(as Schweids account of modern Jewish thinkersespecially Mendelssohn, Krochmal, and Hermann Cohenelaborates), it is, in Schweids
reading, one of the major accessible models for those seeking to develop
their own religious-philosophical outlooks today.
It is not, of course, the only one; Schweid is temperamentally a
pluralist, and nothing less than a dialectical grappling with all the positions in medieval and modern Jewish thought is called for. Thus the
incompatibilist, esotericist, or double-truth positionsthough Schweid
does not ascribe these to Maimonidesare left on the table, represented
here by Kaspi and Albalag. In addition to the positions already mentioned, Schweid gives especially careful and reverent attention to the
religious philosophy of asdai Crescas. Maimonidess thoroughgoing
transcendental theology is balanced by Crescass emphasis on divine
immanence, a shift that points forward to Spinozas pantheism and
the nature-mysticism of Aaron David Gordon. Gordon was one of
Schweids personal heroes and a major inuence on his Zionist and


translators preface

spiritual-philosophical outlook (especially in modeling how one can

pursue a spiritual quest while keeping ones feet rmly planted in the
secular world). Schweids biography of Gordon is another of his many
books illuminating areas of Jewish thought and awaiting translation.
The divine immanence was of course a prominent theme of the
medieval kabbalah. Several of the gures in this workIbn Gabirol,
Halevi, and Crescaseither contributed to the thought-tendencies
that would be expressed in kabbalah or owed something of their
philosophical orientation to it. However, because of its very different
methodological approach from philosophy, Schweid decided to deal
with it only tangentially in this work.
This volume occupies a place not only in Schweids life-work as historian of Jewish thought but also as social educator. Schweid remarks
elsewhere (for instance, in the Introduction to Philosophy of the Bible as
Foundation of Jewish Culture) how the rift in contemporary culture denoted
by the catch-word post-modernism threatens to sever the connection of contemporary individuals from the cultural legacy of the past.
To remain relevant, the narrative of the past must be continually be
retold in terms that o er connection to the concerns of the present.
It was to achieve this connection for himself that Schweid embarked
on his own study of the Jewish thought of the past. He developed his
presentation of that narrative in an effort to provide the connection for
the students at Hebrew University, from which lectures the rst version
of this book developed. I drew on Schweids presentation in turn for
my own intellectual growth, and began to translate it in order to help
provide that connection for my own students at Rutgers University
and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Their
encouraging feedback has reassured me that this work succeeds as a
vehicle of connection. May it continue to provide that service for the
present and future readers of this book.
Leonard Levin
June 25, 2007


When should we start the history of Jewish philosophy? On this there

is disagreement among the scholars.
Philosophy is not native to Jewish culture, but is the product of
absorbing outside inuences. It is the generally accepted consensus to
see the beginning of Jewish philosophy in the rst encounter of Jewish
culture with Greek culture during the Second Temple period, especially
in the works of Philo of Alexandria. However, some scholars push the
beginning back further, and see in the religious thought of the Bible the
rst crystallization of a Jewish philosophy, or at least its antecedents. As
for me, I begin my study with R. Saadia Gaon, the rst of the major
medieval Jewish philosophers.
We need not engage in elaborate justications for omitting a discussion of the central concepts of the Bible and of rabbinic lore from a
treatment of philosophic thought. To be sure, the Jewish philosophers
included the religious and ethical thought that came to expression in
the Bible and in rabbinic sayings as essential sources for their own
enterprise, but these were not philosophical in and of themselves. One
can consider them as such only through understanding the notion of
philosophy in a broad sense, and by ignoring the usual requirement
that philosophy strive for critical and systematic thought based on welldened epistemological criteria. Thus, to present the ideas of the Bible
as a stage in the history of Jewish philosophy seems to me to be a bit of
creative philosophical interpretation rather than a scientic procedure. I
do not wish to disparage the importance of such an enterprise. On the
contrary, I deem it more important than a strictly scholarly approach,
but it is not the objective of this book.1
I decided not to include in this book the thought of Philo of Alexandria, because it is atypical and historically isolated. Its inclusion is
an innovation of modern Judaic scholarship. In the history of general
thought, it is possible to see Philo in retrospect as one of the founders of Christian religious philosophy, but he had no similar inuence

It is the central objective of a more recent book by Schweid: The Philosophy of the
Bible as the Foundation of Jewish Culture. (LL)



on mainstream Jewish thought. To be sure, one may draw fascinating

parallels between Philos interpretations of the Bible and those of the
rabbis. However, though Jewish literature of the Second Temple period
was inuenced by Greek language and literature, it was closed off from
direct philosophical inuence, which it avoided dealing with. The Platonic and Stoic ideas that one can nd in rabbinic literature are the
fruit of social contact, not of grappling intellectually with systematic
philosophical thought. Rather than revealing philosophical ideas, they
should be studied as literary background for the philosophical interpretation that they received by thinkers of later generations, which made
the task of medieval Jewish philosophers easier.
The only Jewish center of antiquity where there was a visible encounter between Judaism and Greek philosophy was in Alexandria of Egypt.
Here one could see the cultural conditions similar to those that obtained
later in Babylonia (under the Sassanids and the Caliphate), in medieval Spain, and in modern Germany. To be sure, with respect to the
mainstream Jewish movements of that period, the Alexandrine Jewish
ourishing was short-lived and had little inuence, whether in its own
time or on posterity. As a result of its swift and complete devastation,
after which the centers of Jewish creativity moved eastward beyond the
sphere of inuence of Greek culture, Alexandrine Judaism remained
an isolated episode without impact on further Jewish creativity. Only
in modern times was its literary legacy rediscovered and sought out
by Judaic scholars.
Philos writings were preserved by the Christian Church, who found
great afnity with them. To be sure, some Philonic ideas found their
way into the teachings of medieval Jewish thinkers, but only indirectly.
The bulk of his teaching remained a passing episode in the history
of Jewish culture. This cannot be said of medieval Jewish philosophy.
From the tenth century onward, Jewish thought experienced a delayed
encounter with Greek philosophy, mediated rst by Muslim and later
by Christian religious philosophers, under circumstances that demanded
dealing with it directly. Thus there developed a substantial body of Jewish philosophical literature. Medieval Jewish philosophy was no mere
episode, but a formative encounter of decisive inuence. A continuous
philosophical tradition was established in Judaism. For all these reasons,
we start our narrative with the rst Jewish philosopher of this period
whose writings were preserved and exerted a continuing inuence.



Does Jewish Philosophy have a Unique Identity?

The second point that we should clarify briey in this introduction is
the meaning of Jewish philosophy. Does it exist as a distinct tradition? Is it to be identied by unique traits and content? These questions stem from the fact that systematic philosophy did not grow up
originally in the culture of Israel, but was the product of an encounter
with another culture. Therefore it is possible to view it primarily as a
branch of the philosophical tradition, whose connection with this or
that religion is accidental.
I do not want to describe in detail at this point the unique traits and
content of Jewish philosophy. That will be more properly done when
all the evidence is in, not at the outset of our survey. Nevertheless, I
wish to repeat my earlier assertion, that during the Middle Ages there
developed a tradition of philosophical interpretation that combined
the outlook of the written and oral Torah with philosophical concepts
and presented itself as an authentic Jewish tradition growing out of its
own peculiar cultural-historical reality. In other words, we have here a
particular movement of thought that dealt with its own special sources
and cultural challenge. This is an assumption without which it would
be pointless indeed to treat Jewish philosophy as a separate tradition
from general philosophy.
It seems to me that it is easy to delineate the boundaries of this
cultural phenomenon. The rst criterion is the formal and authoritative association with an ancient tradition conceived as having its own
cultural identity and totality. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, for
the signicance of the independent identity and integrity of medieval
Jewish culture has too often been ignored in treatment of medieval
Jewish philosophy. Against the backdrop of a younger culture still
developing its comprehensive cultural stylenamely, the Arabic culture
of that periodthere is special importance in its association with an
ancient, foundational religion ( Judaism played this role in relation both
to Islam and Christianity). Special importance may be attributed to the
holistic culture of a community possessed of an ancient literature and
traditional institutions, which lives and acts in accordance with them.
This literature and these institutions determine from the outset the
modes of response of this community to innovations and transformations in its cultural environment.
In this connection it is proper to pay attention to an instructive
fact, one that is commonly cited as a sign of cultural backwardness,



though another interpretation is possible. Generally Jewish philosophy

in the Middle Ages does not rise to the highest level of philosophical
achievement of a given period, but follows it belatedly, as a kind of
anachronistic response to a previous stage of intellectual development.
R. Saadia Gaon wrote in the intellectual idiom of the Mutazilite Kalam,
though he lived in a generation that was already dealing directly with
the Aristotelian corpus. R. Judah Halevi was still wedded to certain
tendencies in Kalamic thought, in a period where a certain variety of
Aristotelianism reigned supreme. Indeed, Maimonidess philosophical
thought is in accord with the best Aristotelian thought of his time (at
least, to a certain extent), yet his dominant achievement in the Jewish
world would soon be anachronistic with respect to its Aristotelian foundations, for he based himself on Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Avempace,
whereas Averroess more radical approach soon gained ground among
the advanced thinkers of the Western Mediterranean. If this may be
said of Maimonides, how much more the case with the Jewish philosophers of Christian Spain! They remained wedded to Arabic philosophy
of the 10th to 13th centuries, while in their immediate vicinity there
ourished new intellectual currents that developed in the Christian
Church (particularly that of Thomas Aquinas).
It is possible to characterize all this as intellectual backwardness, but
it is also possible to see it as the legitimate expression of an independent cultures native rhythm of development, growing out of its own
connection with contemporaneous reality. When this culture absorbs
ideas from outside, it does so as part of an independent retrospective
synthesis.2 Such a culture begins to grapple with these new ideas only
after they have been absorbed and seem to be part of its native legacy
and not an outside inuence. In other words, we see here a culture
that strives to protect its originality and independence, and therefore
it accords legitimacy only to those cultural expressions that have succeeded in making their mark on the totality of Jewish life, and can
therefore be presented as unfolding from within. That is to say, it does
not respond to novelty immediately, but rather to what has aged somewhat and become an inseparable part of the cultural wholeness of that
generation. One should not then call this phenomenon backwardness,

Compare the central thesis of Ahad Ha-Ams essay Imitation and Assimilation:
a minority culture can be undermined by adoption of foreign ideas, unless it takes care
to integrate them into its own unique ideational and value structure. (LL)



but rather conservatismtaking the necessary time for the autonomous

development of the Jewish culture, following its own rhythm and its
regular native pattern.
This principle applies also in later periods. Often those Jewish thinkers
who were obsessed with being up-to-dateavant-gardists who availed
themselves directly of the contemporaneous creations of outside culture
(and such thinkers existed even in the Middle Ages)cut themselves
off from the suffering of the Jewish heritage, and also from the tradition of Jewish thought. We know that some Jews participated in Arabic
philosophical circles in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries ( Judah
ben Joseph, Said ben Eli, Wahb ben Yaish, Nathan ben ayyim, and
others). There were also philosophers such as Abu al-Barakat al-Baghdadi, who converted to Islam at the end of his life, and who had no
connection with Jewish philosophy. There is also the boundary case of
a faithful Jew like Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who in his innovative philosophical work made no direct reference to Jewish sources. The result
was that the same fate befell his work Fountain of Life as befell the works
of Philo of Alexandriait inuenced Christian thought, but it left only
meager traces on Judaism and Jewish literature.
This leads us to the second criterion. Rabbinic Judaisms need for
philosophy originated out of polemical and defensive considerationsto
defend its positions against the Karaites, the Moslems, the Christians,
etc. It needed to assert its identity and to defend itself from a standpoint
of self-awareness. Only in the context of that struggle did mere philosophizing for its own sake become transformed by a larger agendato
serve the Jewish religion. From this point forward, philosophy became
an internal dimension of Jewish religious thought, developing its principles and its characteristic content within that framework.






Jewish philosophical literature rst developed under the inuence of

Moslem philosophers in Babylonia (Iraq) during the Geonic period, in
the rst half of the 10th century. We know the names of some Jewish
philosophers who lived prior to R. Saadia Gaon and from whom he
learned. But Saadiawho may be regarded as the father of medieval
rabbinic literature in all its many varied brancheswas the rst whose
philosophical works have come down to us in their entirety. One may
consider him the founder of the philosophical tradition that interprets
holy writ from a Jewish/rabbinic viewpoint.
His Life
R. Saadia Gaon was born in 882 in Fayyum, Egypt. At about the age of
30 he left under circumstances that are unclear (apparently because of
persecution by the Karaites) and came to Palestine. His varied literary
activity began in Egypt and continued throughout his life, spurred on
by the many controversies in which he was deeply involved, especially
those between the Rabbanites and the Karaites, and between the Jewish
communal leaders of Babylonia and Israel. He moved to Babylonia in
922 and was appointed Gaon of Sura in 928. He died in 942, after a
life full of struggle and controversy.
His Fields of Productivity
Saadias elds of productivity were varied, but one tendency is clearly
recognized in allto establish the authority of the rabbinic tradition
against all its opponents. His philosophical work was devoted to the
same goal. He was creative in six principal elds: lexicography and
study of the Hebrew language; prayer and liturgical poetry; biblical
translation and commentary; polemical literature; halakhic literature,
and philosophical literature. As our interest here is in his philosophical
thought, I shall content myself with pointing out the new tendencies
that came to expression in his contribution to codifying the prayer

chapter one

book, interpreting the Torah, and polemicizing against the critics of

rabbinic Judaism, particularly the Karaites, all of which may serve as
an introduction to his philosophical enterprise.
Saadia compiled one of the earliest prayer books, known as The Siddur of R. Saadia Gaon, and included in it a redaction of the Passover
Haggadah. We shall not delve into the complex issue of the history
of the prayer book and the evolution of Jewish prayer, but it is worth
pointing out one feature. His prayer book was codied as a response
to the criticisms of the Karaites against the rabbinic prayer formulas,
for the Karaites included only biblical texts in their own prayers.
We also recognize in Saadias prayer book his inclination to a methodical approach that verges on the scientic. This is characteristic of all
his undertakings, and in this respect we may see him as inaugurating
a new period, and not just in the philosophical arena.
Torah and Commentary
Saadia wrote a translation of the Torah in Arabic with commentary. We
also have fragments of his translation of other books of the Bible.
His translation and commentary addressed a specic need of the
Jewish communitythe emergence of an Arabic-speaking community
who were no longer knowledgeable in Hebrew (or the Aramaic of the
prior Targum). In addition, it was necessary to deal with the various
sects (especially the Karaites) as well as the Moslems, each of whom had
their own reading of the sense of Scripture. An authoritative translation
from the rabbinic perspective could counter these.
In Saadias commentary to the Torah, a rationalistic and conservative tendency is prominent. It is clear that he is attempting to refute
the penetrating objections of the rationalistic critics of the Bible who
were active at the time. (iwi al-Balkhi, for example, raised 200 questions against the Bible, and we can deduce their nature from Saadias
responses: Why was Adam prevented from accessing the Tree of Life?
Why did God not rescue Abel? How is it conceivable that God should
repent of having made man? Why is the blood of animals acceptable as
an offering to God? If God knows everything, why did He test Abraham?
Etcetera.) Rationalistic criticism of the Bible left a strong impression, and
its inuence made inroads among Jews of the Rabbanite party. Thus
there was a felt need for a project of basic interpretation of Scripture
that would defend its plain sense and answer the objections.

r. saadia gaon

Saadia included methodical introductions with his commentaries, in

which he dealt with the questions of the time of composition of the
books, the authority of their authors, the purpose of the Torah, etc.
These introductions also gave expression to his scientic approach, his
polemical purpose, and his characteristic conservative rationalism.
His Polemical Works
Saadias major lifelong controversy was against the Karaites. He wrote
many works toward this objective, not all of which have come down to
us. Apparently they were not originally intended for publication, but
for the benet of an inside circle of students, for the Karaites enjoyed
the protection of the authorities. Therefore many of these works were
Saadias most important polemical work was The Open Book, in
which he summarized many of his arguments; only fragments remain
of it. The main objective of his case against the Karaites was to prove
the necessity of an oral Torah. One of the most important Karaite
writers, Kirkisani, cites seven evidences of Saadia for the necessity of
the Oral Torah:
1. There are commandments in which the quality is not specied
(what constitutes a proper Sukkah?).
2. There are commandments in which the quantity is not specied (how much of ones produce must one give as a heaveoffering?).
3. There are commandments in which the material substance is not
specied (which utensils are susceptible of impurity?).
4. Exact times cannot be known from the Bible (when does the
Sabbath begin and end?).
5. God commanded observances that are not mentioned at all in
the Bible (such as prayer).
6. We cannot know from the Bible the number of the years or the
history of the Jewish people after the cessation of prophecy.
7. The hope for the renewal of the world and of the Jewish people
develops from post-biblical reality.

chapter one
The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs

Saadias rationalistic, apologetic and polemical predilections led him

to philosophy. He did not view philosophy as an intrinsic objective of
religious thought, and he did not engage in it for its own sake. He saw
it as a useful tool for defending the true faith against its opponents. The
problem that troubled him, by his own testimony, was the wide-ranging disagreement among his contemporaries as to the proper doctrines
and beliefs. This led to uncertainty, whereas the goal of religion is to
bring one to the certainty that is the foundation for a correct way of
. . . My heart grieved for my race, the race of mankind, and my soul was
moved on account of our own people Israel, as I saw in my time many
of the believers clinging to unsound doctrines and mistaken beliefs while
many of those who deny the faith boast of their unbelief and despise the
men of truth, although they are themselves in error. I saw men sunk, as
it were, in a sea of doubt and covered by the waters of confusion,and
there was no diver to bring them up from the depths and no swimmer
to come to their rescue. But as my Lord has granted unto me some
knowledge which I can use for their support, and endowed me with some
ability which I might employ for their benet, I felt that to help them was
my duty, and guiding them aright an obligation upon me . . .1

We note that Saadia speaks as a believer secure in the knowledge of

his truth. He himself is not troubled by any doubts, but he grieves for
the plight of those who are beset by doubt and perplexity, and sees
himself as obligated to help them out. This is the background of his
engagement with philosophy.
The Name of the Book
The name of the book Sefer ha-Emunot veha-Deot (Kitab al-{Amanat walIxtikadat) attests to this purpose. Some2 think that this title expresses an
Saadia Gaon, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, Introduction, Altmann p. 29, Oxford
1946; reprinted in Three Jewish Philosophers, Meridian 1961 (2006 Toby Press reprint
is repaginated).
The two English translations of Saadias title illustrate Schweids point. Samuel
Rosenblatt translated the title The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, in accordance with the rst
approach. Alexander Altmann translated it The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs. After discussing
the connotation of the original Arabic terms of the title, Altmann concludes: The title
of the book thus epitomizes the whole purpose which the author had in mind, namely,
to enable the reader to reach a stage where the {Amanat (doctrines, i.e. of Judaism)
become the object of xIxtikadat (conviction, i.e. faith based on speculation). (p. 20)

r. saadia gaon

opposition between authenticated beliefs to opinions that are merely

conjectural. Others see it as a contrast between doctrines that are
taken on faith and need to rise to the level of beliefs substantiated
by reason. In either case, Saadias purpose is to dene the principles
of religion and argue their truth. This purpose informs the method of
presentation and the structure of the book. At the start of each chapter
he sets forth one religious principle and supports it by a Biblical prooftext. In the body of the discussion he presents philosophical arguments
in its favor, outlines opposing positions and refutes the objections in
every possible way, thus banishing all doubt and imbuing his readers
with secure certainty.
Three Sources of Knowledge: Sense, Reason and Inference
In order to fulll this mission successfully, Saadia rst outlines the
sources of human knowledge and the ways of validating it. Doctrines
and beliefs come to us, in his view, from three sources:
1. Knowledge Perceived through the Senses This is the main source.
Saadia assumes that what we see is not merely the outer form
of things, but their very essence. In Saadias view, human beings
can only grasp what is grasped through the senses, i.e. material
entities. Purely spiritual entities cannot be grasped by our faculties
of knowledge, but what we grasp through the senses is certain.
Indeed, Saadia recognizes that the senses can err and generate
doubt, but in his view we discover our errors by means of the
senses and correct them. Therefore experiential observation undertaken in an exact and critical manner can remove all doubts.
2. Knowledge of ReasonThese are elementary truths that reason
intuits by itself, for they are integral to it. Saadia has in mind
the distinction between good and evil, and the basic axioms of
logic. On the one hand, there is self-evident knowledge, and on
the other hand, there is sensory knowledge. These two sources are
combined in every intellectual apprehension. We explain this by
saying that the intellect passes judgment on sensory experience.
The content of intellectual apprehension has its source in or
through the senses. Thus the intellect, like the senses, can avoid
error and doubt through repeated critical examination.
3. Inferential knowledgeThese are conclusions that follow from the
senses and from reason by logical deduction. The third source is

chapter one
dependent for its action on the rst two. Most scientic knowledge
is of this sort, but most errors derive from it as well, because
complex cognition requires a doubly critical stance, both of its
sensory and rational elements. Nevertheless, a sustained critical
effort can dispel doubt.

If we are careful not to contradict the senses, reason, and what follows
logically from both, and if we are not hasty in our judgments, but
proceed patiently and methodically on rm foundations, then we can
arrive at well-founded and rm knowledge on which we can rely.
What is Rationalism?
Saadias rationalism is sincere inasmuch as he believes in the ability
to arrive at absolute knowledge of the truth within the realm of our
experience. Still, we are speaking of a knowledge with limits. We
know by our reason that there are things beyond our knowledge. Our
knowledge depends on our senses, and our reason passes judgment
on our limited sensory experience. Moreover, we know how to arrive
at well-founded conclusions, but even then we cannot be entirely sure
that we have not erred. We must recognize that our reason is limited
and liable to err. Therefore, even when we arrive at a conclusion that
satises us, we ought to admit that we may have erred. This is a very
important conclusion for understanding Saadias religious thought, as
will become clearer later.
Let us elaborate on this point. Saadia wants to arrive at certainty. He
has no interest in speculation for its own sake. The intellectual enterprise for its own sake is not a goal for him. His only goal is to live in
accord with the Torahs commandments. Furthermore, he recognizes
no supra-sensual reality. The example that he brings is instructive: we
see smoke and deduce that there is re; we see a man moving and
deduce that he has a soul. This may seem to go beyond the evidence
of the senses, but this is not really the case. We are still in the sensory
realm. Saadia considers the soul, too, as a sensory reality that we
know from our inner experience; we do not surpass the limit of what
is grasped experientially. God, who is the cause of sensory reality, is a
spiritual essence, but when we assert this we have arrived at the limit
beyond which our reason cannot go. We cannot know God, but only
His creative activity.

r. saadia gaon

This is the basic difference between Saadias approach and a philosophy that has arrived at a metaphysical perspective. Saadias rationalism
does not believe in breaching the limits of experience and contemplating metaphysical truth. He only recognizes that experience points to a
metaphysical reality of which we can know nothing.
All philosophers agree on the crucial proposition that God is
unknown. Nevertheless, they make a concerted effort to apprehend
something of Gods metaphysical essence, as we shall see later. Saadia
vehemently opposes this move. When he arrives at the uttermost limit
of knowledge, he does not speculate further.
We can thus characterize Saadias religious thought as a limited
rationalism, which contents itself with verifying natural facts in order
to conrm religious thought and action within the limits of human
experience, and to overcome doubt. His chief aspiration is religious
certainty, and in that respect he achieves his objective.
TraditionThe Fourth Source of Knowledge
The deliberation on the sensory and rational sources of knowledge
is a prelude to the fourth source on which religion is based: reliable
report, or tradition.
Saadia sets up tradition as a special source of religious truth. But
nevertheless he emphasizes its dependence on the three previous sources
of knowledge: we must validate the claim of tradition too, because only
then can we rely on it.
Setting the fourth source on the same plane as the rst three raises
the question of the relation of revelation to reason. Saadias limited
rationalism points this discussion in a particular direction. Clearly, the
difference between reason and revelation does not pose the distressing
religious problem for him that it did later for Maimonides. He assumes
from the outset that there is a simple identity between them. The question is not how to reconcile contradictions between reason and revelation, but rather to what use each of the sources shall be put.
The distinction between good and evil is within the capacity of
natural human reason. This follows from a utilitarian conception
of the moral ideas: good denotes the useful, and evil the harmful to
humankind. In that respect one does not require divine revelation to
distinguish good and evil. Nevertheless, Saadia gives revelation a broad
scope in the practical realm.


chapter one

What is the Role of Reliable Tradition?

Reliable tradition is a source of knowledge specic to religion, yet
Saadia offers a universal basis for it. First of all, it does not operate in
isolation but rests on a sensory experience of revelation. It is distinct
from all other sensory experiences in that it is an exceptional event, in
which truth was revealed from an authoritative source and enjoined
to pass it on to posterity. Some sort of tradition is necessary for the
existence of any cultural community. However, reliable tradition is
unique by being based on revelation, for its claims are not subject to
verication at any time by ordinary human experience.
It follows therefore that Saadia does not place revealed tradition on
a higher level than the rst three sources, but on a common plane with
them, and in respect of its foundation (if not its contents) it is dependent
on them. Thus it is also subject to rational criticism and corroboration. Just as Saadia demands agreement between the rst two sources
of knowledge (sense and reason) and the third source (inference), so
he demands agreement between these three sources of knowledge and
the fourth, to prevent error and doubt.
But now the critical approach changes in accord with the unique
character of revelation. We must examine not just the content of the
matters that were transmitted, but the authority of the tradition. We
must be convinced of its reliability. We therefore need special criteria
for gauging the authenticity of prophetic revelation for those who
were present at the event or for its direct recipients. Afterwards, when
these are transmitted to later generations, we must examine also the
credibility of the transmitter, the teacher, and when he withstands our
examination, we rely on him in certainty.
According to Saadia, reliable tradition veries and conrms the rst
three sources of knowledge and the truths that we derive from them.
In this way Saadias rationalism extends into the domain of religion.
Seeking Agreement of Reason and Religion
We have now arrived at the main point of Saadias rationalism. He
has a prior expectation of full agreement between revelation and the
fruits of reason. This agreement seems a simple thing, and its existence
is obvious. He assumes that there will be no contradiction between the
words of the true prophet and the certain conclusion of the intellect.
When there is an apparent contradiction like the one we have seen,

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Saadia determines that one should interpret the prophets words in a

rational sense rather than their literal sense. The most blatant example
is eliminating every vestige of materiality from the biblical depiction of
God. Another example is the belief in the world to come:
Should it, however, be thought by anyone that these passages were capable
also of other constructions that would invalidate their use as proof of
[the doctrine of ] a world to come, we might explain to him that he is
mistaken in his belief because reason demands retribution in another
world. Now any interpretation that agrees with reason must be correct,
whereas any that leads to what is contrary to reason must be unsound
and fallacious.3

In other words, we rely on the words of the prophets, but reason teaches
us how to interpret them, and so the words of the Bible cannot be
afrmed without rational examination.
Does this mean that Saadia subjects the very word of God to the
critique of the human intellect? Certainly not. He merely assumes a
simple agreement that is intuitively obvious. Only what does not offend
our intellect can be the word of God. Saadia is unaware of the philosophical theory that will come with Maimonides, according to which
human intellect is fully autonomous and is able to discover on its own
metaphysical truths that are an alternative to revelation. Therefore the
problem of a fundamental confrontation of reason versus revelation did
not arise with Saadia. But the question does arise, why do we need both?
What does one add to the other? Why isnt one of them enough?
Saadias answer to this question follows from his conception of limited rationalism: reason and revelation do not contradict each other,
but there is a realm of knowledge vital to humankind that is beyond
reason, that we can know only from revelation.
Reason and Revelation Serve Each Other
In that case, why do we need reason in religion? To this, Saadia answers
rst that the obligation to interpret and verify the words of revelation
is an independent need, and at the same time it is a commandment
rooted in revelation itself. In addition, there is a polemical reason.

Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, IX, 3, Rosenblatt p. 333.


chapter one

One must know the logic of the heretic and the skeptic, so that their
misguided arguments will not disturb us.
As we said, we need reason in order to understand the words of
revelation, but also for the sake of our intellectual inquiry we need the
prior knowledge that comes from revelation so that we shall know what
questions to ask, so that there will be a clear direction to our inquiry,
and so that we shall arrive at absolute certainty, because in matters of
faith and religion we cannot rely on reason alone. There will always
remain the doubt that follows from the possibility that there is a gap
in our reasoning of which we are unaware, and someone intellectually
superior to us may reveal it. When we arrive at complete agreement
between the intent of revelation and rational reection, we can rest
certain that we have arrived at the truth.
The Order of Deliberation in the Book of Doctrines and Beliefs
The structure of the deliberation in the Book of Doctrines and Beliefs
reects the relationship between revelation and reason. The order of
presentation in each chapter is Statement, Proof, Polemic(1) presentation of the Biblical idea; (2) rational verication of the same; (3)
refutation of contrary ideas.
Presenting the idea in its biblical formulation is not a formality, but
substantive. Saadia starts with the Torah source in order to verify it.
Thus, too, in his formulation of articles of faith that are problematic
with respect to our daily experience (such as resurrection of the dead,
the future redemption, and reward and punishment), he summarizes
and claries the traditional view unequivocally and methodically, as if
stating a simple fact whose truth is vouched for by revelation. After all,
we are not speaking here of the natural order that we verify by daily
experience, but of Gods intervention in nature. Only God can vouch
for that purpose and verify it. On the one hand, he is highlighting the
rational character of Scripture in order to refute arguments that have
been raised against it. On the other hand, after he has given reason
its due, he is interested in establishing the authority of revelation and
tradition. This is recognizable also in the way that he explains the role
of tradition in the life of the culture, especially its necessity in preserving
the social order. The Karaites had protested against the rabbinic tradition of the Oral Law, and Saadia wishes to demonstrate its vital role.

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Prophecy and Commandments

Rational and Positive (= Arbitrary)4 Imperatives
Among the commandments that dene the religious lifestyle, Saadia
distinguishes two varieties that parallel the mutual duality of reason and
revelation: imperatives of reason and imperatives of obedience.
Rational imperativesthese are the commands that even had they not
been revealed in the Torah, we would be obligated to them by reason.
These include some imperatives that are religiously signicant (belief in
God, belief in individual providence, prayer), as well as social imperatives (prohibition of murder, theft, adultery, etc.).
Positive (or arbitrary) imperativesthese are the commands that reason
does not require (though it does not exclude them either). Their obligatory nature derives from the Torah. This refers especially to commands
that touch on worship of God (Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).
However, this classication is not hard and fast. Each category contains elements of the other.
On the one hand, there is an arbitrary element in rational imperatives. Reason recognizes general rules of conduct, but the specic norms
that embody them rest on governmental authority. For instance, the
prohibition of murder is categorical, but the distinction between murder and manslaughter, the gradation of their severity and the punishments meted out to them are a matter of governmental determination
that will necessarily be arbitrary to some extent. This is not a purely
rational judgment, and it calls for the absolute authority that is to be
found in revelation.
On the other hand, there is a rational element in the positive commands. Reason requires man to bend his will to the authority above
him and to acknowledge the Good One who has dealt him good, who
extends him benecence without limit. Thus, there is a rational reason
to fulll those commands whose rationale is obedience and subordination to the divine will, even if the person who observes them sees no
private benet from their performance.

The distinction Saadia draws is familiar in legal theory as the distinction between
natural law and positive law. The Hebrew shimiyot connotes hearing, obedience,
disciplinehearing the law conveys the authority required for obeying it. Altmann
translates it Revelational, see Jewish Philosophers (2006), 228.


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We may therefore say that the difference between the rational and
positive commands rests with whether the primary content of a given
command expresses human utilitywhether of an individual or a societyor subordination to the divine will. However, with respect to our
motivation to obey and fulll the imperatives, there is an arbitrary aspect
to rational commands and a rational aspect to positive commands.
The Need for Prophecy
The distinction between positive and rational commands, and the need
for arbitrary authority even with the rational commands, necessitates
a means by which the divine word can come to humanity, in other
words, prophecy.
How does Saadia understand the phenomenon of prophecy?
First of all the question of the likelihood or reasonableness of the
prophetic vision does not bother Saadia especially. For Halevi and later
for the Aristotelian philosophers, this is a question of the rst rankhow
can one explain prophecy, either psychologically or theologically? But
for Saadia, this is an indubitable experience for which it is not hard
to give a scientic explanation. The reason is that he had no general
theory of the natural and the supernatural, but he accepted the biblical view of reality at face value and sought rational evidence for all
its components. When he was faced with outright denial of the divine
source of holy scripture, he sought to show that it was groundless.
In that case, how does God bring his word to mankind? In the Book of
Doctrines and Beliefs Saadia dealt with this question with extreme brevity,
but he treated it more fully in his earlier work, the commentary to the
Book of Formation. The Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) is an enigmatic
mystical work that deals with the creation of the world and the secret
connections between the divine and terrestrial realms. Scholars debate
the date of its composition, and we shall not enter into that controversy.
Sufce it to say that it was invested with traditional authority by both
the philosophers and the kabbalists of the Middle Ages. Saadia used it
for his purposes and it contributed to his development of the idea of
the created manifestation of God by means of which he explained
God is a spiritual entity, whereas man is a material creature. It is
therefore impossible that God himself should speak to man or appear to
him. Nevertheless, Saadia accepts at face value the prophets testimony
that they saw divine visions and heard the divine voice speaking to them.

r. saadia gaon


He explains this by postulating a mediating entity that was made visible

to the prophets eyes and was heard by their ears by divine at.
This glory or manifestation must be an ethereal material entity
that was created to serve as a medium. It is pictured in forms that have
allegorical signicance, and in this way it informs the prophets of the
divine will. The voice that the prophet hears is also a material voice.
This is the explanation for the fact that different prophets see different
visions. God depicts the glory to each prophet in a way appropriate
to him. The vision is allegorical, but what the prophet sees and hears
are real apparitions and voices, not the phantoms of his imagination.
Thus Saadia reconciles an incorporeal notion of God with the objective
reality of the prophetic vision.
The Source and Inuence of the Manifestation Doctrine
The doctrine of the divine manifestation is not Saadias invention. He
received it from various sources. The rst known source is the Logos
of Philo of Alexandria. This is one of the isolated instances of the
transmigration of a Philonic ideaperhaps through Christian literatureinto medieval Muslim and Jewish religious philosophy.
Through Saadias commentary on the Book of Formation, the doctrine
of the divine manifestation spread widely among Jewish circles in the
Middle Ages. It became the central doctrine of the medieval German
Hasidim. It inuenced Halevis theory of prophecy. Some Aristotelian
philosophers also regarded it as acceptable for popular teaching, as it
strictly avoided anthropomorphism.
Verication of Prophecy
The explanation of the prophetic phenomenon appears simple, yet
it still raises the question of verication: how does the prophet know
with certainty that he experiences a true prophetic vision and not a
phantom of the imagination? Moreover, how do his listeners know that
he is a true prophet?
The answer to both questions is: the demonstrative miracle. God
alters the order of nature after He has announced to the prophet that
He will do so. The fulllment of the announcement is the objective
testimony that the prophet had a divine revelation. This answers the
prophets doubts and his listeners as well.


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This explanation is bound up with a whole line of secondary questions. Saadia assertsagainst the accepted views of many thinkers
of the Muslim Kalamthat nature generally follows a set pattern in
conformity to rational law. In this respect he is close to Aristotelianism.
The natural order is altered only occasionally by God for a denite
need, such as the verication of revelation. The prophet has no superhuman powers; hence, the demonstrative miracle must clearly be an
act performed by God himself. By it, prophecy can be veried.
However, there is still the power of a deceptive illusion, and so
one should not accept a miracle without a double cross-examination:
examination of the prophet by his witnesses, and examination of the
witnesses. Saadia is of the opinion that Mosess prophecy had an absolute superiority over all other founders of religions. The testimony of
his prophecy was public and well-examined. But still another question
is raised: How is a change in the natural order possible? Aristotelian
philosophers held that nature is eternal and its laws are permanent,
and it is impossible that they will suffer change. Saadia feels no difculty
on this point. God created nature. This is itself a miracle, and since
God is omnipotent, there is no obstacle to His changing the order of
nature when there is a rational need to do so. The only problem is
again: How can one distinguish between a true miracle and a deception?
Only the critical acuity of people who carefully re-examine what they
have seen, and only the cross-comparison of the testimony of many
witnesses, can yield us that certainty. In his discussion of Christianity
and Islam, Saadia again maintained that only Mosess prophecy stood
on adequately examined testimony.

Creation and Gods Existence

Creation as a Foundational Theological Principle
We saw that prophecy rests on a demonstrative miracle, and the miracle
rests on the assumption that the world was created by the will of an
omnipotent God. Indeed, the afrmation in Genesis that the world was
created after a prior non-being (which Saadia interprets as creation ex
nihilo) and in that respect is generated (not eternal) and is regenerated
continually, was in his view the foundation for proving the metaphysical
truths of religionknowing that God exists, and knowing the divine
attributes. The knowledge that human beings are commanded to fulll

r. saadia gaon


the divine commandments is a necessary deduction from the fact that

God created the world and humankind in it. To this, Saadia added a
very important stipulation: God is perfect and lacks nothing, so it is
clear that He did not create the world for His own sake, but ratheras
the Good and Benecent Onefor the sake of the world and humanity. This therefore provides a double reason for our obligation to fulll
Gods commandments. We are beholden to God for the kindness of
creating us, and Gods commandments are given for our benet.
Maimonidess Criticism of Saadias Doctrine of Creation
We can understand how central the belief in the worlds creation was
to the foundation of Saadias biblical religious world outlook, from the
spirited criticism that Maimonides directed at it. Saadia rst proved that
the world was created, and on that basis he proved Gods existence.
Maimonides argued that one ought not to prove Gods existence on
the basis of the worlds creation, because creation is not subject to
logical proof. There are considerations on each side of the argument.
Therefore one should not make the proof of Gods existence dependent on an unproved proposition. On the contrary, it would be better
to prove Gods existence on the basis of the physics of Aristotle, who
preferred the view that the world is eternal and the laws of physics
are everlasting.
Maimonidess argument raises a problem of interpretation, one with
which we will have to reckon when we come to discuss his philosophy.
In connection with his criticism of Saadia, one must emphasize that
(according to our view) Maimonides accepted the belief in the worlds
creation, for only on that basis can one establish a religious theology
true to the outlook of the Bible, one that posits a God who wills, commands, directs the world, provides for reward and punishment, reveals,
and works miracles. We learn all this from revelation. But in order to
believe in revelation, we rst need to believe in the existence of God.
To this purpose, we should rely on a physical theory that is systematic
and tested, namely that of Aristotle, and not on an assertion of creation
that cannot be proved!
This criticism sheds light on Saadias method. It reveals Saadias
innocence and naivete in relying on the authority of the biblical text.
The Torah begins with the description of creation and presentation of
God as creator. Saadia follows the same procedure in his philosophical argument. Maybe that is why he was unaware that his proofs of


chapter one

the creation of the world would not withstand the test of systematic
philosophical method.
Kalam and Aristotelianism in Muslim Philosophy
This is the place to clarify Saadias relation to the two principal currents
in Muslim philosophy, and to identify the main difference between them.
The Mutakallimim were theologians who engaged in philosophy exclusively from a religious viewpoint and purpose. They were not interested
in scientic and philosophical subjects for their own sake. Aristotelian
philosophers, on the other hand, were interested in philosophy for its
own sake. For them religion was only one portion, though an important
and central one, of the general truth that interested them. For that
purpose, they relied not simply on revealed scripture, but on scientic
research, both empirical and theoretical. It is clear that Saadia followed
the path of the Kalam. He did not engage in natural science for its own
sake. Nevertheless, there are grounds for establishing that Saadia was
familiar with Aristotles physics and considered it superior. The result
was a kind of amalgam between theological and scientic arguments.
Saadia showed originality and creativity in this endeavor, but he did not
see that he was subordinating what he learned of Aristotles physics to
what he learned from the Kalamic thinkers, and that from a systematic
Aristotelian standpoint his arguments for the creation of the world and
his proofs for Gods existence were not convincing.5
Saadias Fundamental Assumption: Cause Precedes Effect
To understand Saadias proofs, we must uncover a prior assumption that
differs from Aristotle, one that he regarded as so obvious that he did
not bother to state it. In Saadias view, a physical cause for generating
The situation is perhaps a bit more complex than Maimonidess remarks in Guide I,
71 suggest. John Philoponus, a Christian thinker of the 6th century, revised the Aristotelian argument against an actual innity to draw the conclusion that an innite series
of events in time was equally as inconceivable as an innite concatenation of objects
at one time. It is not clear why Aristotles version of the argument should be accepted
and Philoponuss rejected. Crescas was consistent in rejecting both. Al-Kindi, by many
accounts the rst true philosopher among the Moslems, accepted Philoponuss argument. It is of course true that Saadia was philosophically a dilettante using philosophy
occasionally for theological purposes. Still, he could have claimed (citing Al-Kindis
example) that his use of this argument in support of creation had the endorsement
of at least one true philosopher. (LL)

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objects and the processes that they undergo must be prior in time to
its effects. In other words, it cannot be the case that the cause and
effect occur at the same time. Thus the cause must be external (transcendental) to the effect. It thus follows that if we encounter objects or
processes that cannot be explained of themselves, we must assume that
there is an external cause prior to them in time, which caused them. It
is easy to see that this assumption contains in itself Saadias primary
argument. If we prove that the world that we see cannot develop from
itselfif we prove that the world only has possible existence and
not necessary existencewe can then of course prove that there
is a cause that caused the possibly existing thing to become actual,
and that cause is God, of whom we know whatever of Him is revealed
through His creations.
Aristotle (and Maimonides following him) disagreed with this assumption. In his view, the causes and effects of every process of becoming and
transformation must coexist in time. This necessarily follows from the
relation of cause and effect. The cause precedes the effect, of course, in
respect of importance and role. But if we assume that God is eternal,
it necessarily follows that the world is coeternal with God. Saadia did
not see the fallacy in his own argument, and therefore Maimonides
criticized him. But it is clear from this example how much Saadia was
inuenced by the biblical way of thought.
Proofs for Creation of the World
Saadia offers four proofs for the creation of the world:
1. The world is nite The worlds nite character can be demonstrated in various ways, for instance from the fact that the earth
is encircled by the suns orbit. This is an Aristotelian assumption, and likewise the following: A nite body cannot contain an
innite force. Therefore it is necessary that the world must have
a beginning and end in time.6 We note that Saadia uses Aristotelian premises to arrive at conclusions opposite to Aristotles. It
is clear, too, that the source of the difference is what we specied

The medievals were ignorant of the principle of inertia. Moving bodies must run
out of gas, so to speak. There were two solutions to this problem: either the world has
a temporally nite run due to a nite gas tank, or the Aristotelian unmoved Mover
is constantly (and eternally) supplying it with additional momentum. (LL)


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earlier: Saadia believes that the cause must precede its effect in
time, and therefore the effect must begin at a certain moment,
after the action of the cause.
2. The world is composed of many partsThis can be demonstrated by
simple sensory observation of the world. It is composed of many
parts, and all the parts are composed of parts that can further
be subdivided, ad innitum.7 In that case, the composition of the
parts that preceded the whole must be a kind of creation. Here
too Saadia used an Aristotelian theory that has been uprooted
from its systematic context. In its Kalamic source, this argument
is based on the theory of atoms. Every object is composed of
atoms, and the composition is brought about by creation. Saadia
rejected the atomic theory on Aristotles authority, and therefore
he deals with the composition of the organic constituents of the
world: earth, water, air and re; mineral, vegetable, animal and
rational (human); etc. Indeed, in Aristotles view one may prove
from this composition that God is their cause, but it does not
follow from this what Saadia argues, namely that the process of
composition must have had a beginning in time.
3. All objects change their accidental qualitiesAll things in the world come
into being and perish. There is continual renewal in existence,
and whatever is regenerated is originally generated. The source
of this argument is again Kalamic: everything is composed of
atoms, and they are only distinguished from each other in the
arrangement of their atoms. A qualitative change in a body is
caused by rearrangement of atoms. Thus far, the Kalamic proof.
But Saadia rejected atomic theory, and reverted to the Aristotelian
outlook, according to which objects are generated and change
through transformation of form in hylic matter. This change of
form is a perpetual regenerative process, i.e. the appearance of
new objects each of which has a beginning and ending point
of its existence.

The Aristotelians believed in the continuity and innite divisibility of matter, similar
to the innite divisibility of real numbers. Saadia followed the Aristotelians in this belief,
and of course so did Maimonides. Curiously, only the Muslim Kalam thinkers held
to the belief in atomism, a precursor of our modern atomic theory. So much for the
invincible scientic superiority of Aristotelianism! (LLto which Schweid replies: Well.
Modern physics shows that the atoms are innitely divisibleback to Aristotle!)

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4. Time cannot be inniteOf all the proofs that Saadia offers for the
creation of the world, this is the only one that has philosophical
merit. It had important antecedents, and it contains in kernel the
essential difference between the Aristotelian outlook and Saadias
biblical outlook. If the world is eternalso argues Saadiait
must follow that an innite time preceded the present moment,
and similarly every present moment has an innite time preceding it. This is absurd; an innite time cannot pass in actuality.
It follows that time must have an absolute beginning. This argument points to a difculty inherent in the Aristotelian system.
This disagreement would eventually be codied as one of Kants
philosophical antinomies. Aristotle overcame this difculty by the
argument that time is cyclical and continually uctuating between
potentiality and actuality. It follows that past and future alternate
continually through eternal repetition. On the other side, Saadias
(and Kants) conception of time is biblical: there is an absolute
difference between past and future, and time goes not in a circle
but in a straight line in the direction of the purpose and perfection that God intended for creation. Here, then, is a substantive
difference between the biblical, monotheistic conception of time
and Aristotles pagan conception.
Creation ex nihilo and Gods Existence
Saadia deduced three principal consequences from the creation of the
1. Creation must be from nothingThis follows simply and necessarily
from Saadias conception of creation. If the world was created from pre-existing matter, then it itself is pre-existing and
2. The created cannot create itselfIf we suppose that it created itself,
we imply that it preceded itself. From this, he proves that there
must be a God who is the cause of creation.
3. From the creation of the world, we can deduce Gods attributesHe is
revealed as Creator, and this is the foundation of further theological discourse.


chapter one

God as Cause of the World

In the opening of the second chapter, Saadia establishes several auxiliary
principles that guide him in his discussion. From the ten principles that
he species, we mention two that are especially important:
1. Human knowledge ascends by degrees from matters easy of understanding and gross (material) to matters difcult of understanding and subtle (spiritual), from sensory knowledge to abstract
concepts. This ascent parallels the order of investigation from the
effect to the cause. In other words, every cause is more subtle and
ethereal than its effect. The example that Saadia cites is instructive: We see snow; the cause of the snow is water, which is more
subtle than snow (for snow is opaque and water is transparent).
The cause of water is a mist, which is subtler than water. The
cause of the mist is the sun, which is still more subtle; the cause
of the sun is God, who is not grasped by the senses at all. Saadia
seeks to explain by this demonstration why inquiry in the latter
things is especially difcult, and why this difculty is not a valid
argument against the truth of the matter. On the contrary, the
difculty is evidence that we are progressing toward knowledge
of the truth. Indeed, from this point he arrives at a topic of
even greater importancethe conclusion that God is one and
incorporeal, for the cause of the material must be more ethereal
than the effect. The corresponding assumption is left implicit for
the time beingthe cause is outside the effect and different from
it in essence.
2. Everything known is limited; human inquiry is limited. Saadia
understands this assumption in two parallel ways. First, inquiry is
limited because it is dependent on the senses, which are limited.
Second, everything that is a subject for inquiry is limited, i.e.,
reality as a whole is nite.
God is Not Conceivable
We shall now combine the two premises: Everything known to us in
the world is either from the senses or on account of the senses. What is
known from the senses is limited, and everything that transcends sensory
knowledge transcends the bounds of inquiry. Materiality alone is the
cause of plurality. The immaterial, the spiritual, is one, and the categories of material existence do not apply to it. In other words, spiritual

r. saadia gaon


reality is the nal reality; there is no other reality beyond it. There are
not two spiritual entities. This is the proof for the unity of God.
Thus inquiry into existing entities brings us, through the chain of
effects and causes, to the supra-mundane cause of all reality, and with
that we come to the limit of reality. But let us remember: in Saadias
view, the limit of reality is also the limit of human knowledge.
We stand before something that has necessary existence, and the
assumption of such a being is a condition for our inquiry concerning
the world, but of that thing itself we can have no conception. God is
beyond our power to know, which grasps only what comes from the
senses. In other words, God is the spiritual cause of the material world.
In that respect He is outside the world and outside our thought. He is
the One who is immaterial and unchanging.
Saadias Relation to Scripture
Now we stand before the crucial task that Saadia took upon himselfto
reconcile this concept of God that comes from speculation with the
biblical concept of God.
The rst problem that arises is the problem of material and anthropomorphic representations of God in the Bible. Saadia considers it
obligatory to reconcile his indubitable conclusion of reason with the
Bible, and he does it by interpreting the text guratively. Moreover, he
sees this reconciliation as required by the Bible itself, for we nd in
the Bible the injunction not to depict God by any image, and not to
compare Him to His creation.
In that case, why does the Bible nevertheless have recourse to corporeal imagery? Saadias answer is already found in the words of the
rabbis: The Torah speaks in human language.8 But it is possible to
understand this injunction in different ways. According to Maimonides,
these rabbinic words express the far-reaching difference between the
understanding of the simple person and the philosopher. Saadia is far

A qualication is in order here. The practice to interpret away the anthropomorphisms of the Bible is indeed an important part of rabbinic thought, as the midrashic
interpretation of many sensitive passages (and their rendering by the Targumim) amply
demonstrates. However, the saying The Torah speaks in human language was coined
by the rabbis for a more technical purpose: to leave textual redundancies uninterpreted
instead of using each redundancy (such as the doubling of a verb) to indicate another
legal lesson. The use of this saying in connection with Biblical anthropomorphism is
a medieval usage. (LL)


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from adopting this elitist distinction. His philosophical thought is on

the border of understanding of every Jew who learns Torah. Corporeal
imagery of God follows, in his view, from the need for enrichment of
expression to convey the feeling of tangible presence of God:
If someone were to ask, But what advantage is there in this extension
of meaning that is practiced by language and that is calculated only to
throw us into doubt? Would it not have done better if it had restricted
itself to expressions of unequivocal meaning and thus have enabled us to
dispense with this burden of discovering the correct interpretation? my
answer would be that, if language were to restrict itself to just one term,
its employment would be very much curtailed and it would be impossible
to express by means of it any more than a small portion of what we aim
to convey . . . Were we, in our effort to give an account of God, to make
use only of expressions that are literally true, it would be necessary for
us to desist from speaking of Him as one that hears and sees and pities
and wills to the point where there would be nothing left for us to afrm
except the fact of His existence.9

In other words, embellishment comes from the need for expression,

not the need for communicating the truth to ordinary believers. When
we come to express the richness of our thought about God, we have
need of the variety of words borrowed from the nature of things, from
the world of sensory experience. We cannot dispense with it, not even
the philosopher, so as not to impoverish our thinking. In this manner
Saadia gives full endorsement to the biblical mode of expression and
the biblical way of conceiving God, and he requires it in the language
of prayer as well.
Gods Positive Attributes and Conception of a Personal God
In addition to the corporeal imagery of God we nd in the Bible
positive attributes of another kind, attributes that conceive God as a
personality acting from intentionality and will, namely the attributes
Living, Powerful, Wise, and Willing.
In Maimonidess discussion of the divine attributes, he draws no distinction between these attributes and those which are grossly corporeal
and anthropomorphic. In his view, only someone who does not understand the matter properly will treat the two differently. One can only
predicate these attributes in a positive sense of a material entity. That

Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, II, 10, Rosenblatt 1178.

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is not Saadias view. Indeed, he understands the difculty in ascribing

these attributes to God, inasmuch as they would introduce plurality in
Him, whereas God must be one in simple unity, without composition.
Nevertheless, Saadia does ascribe these attributes to God in a positive
sense. How so? In his view, these attributes follow necessarily from
conceiving God as Creator. The Creator must necessarily be living,
powerful, wise and willing. These attributes are implicit in the concept
of creating when we analyze its meaning.
In this way Saadia seeks to overcome the danger of plurality in afrming these attributes. We conceive them instantaneously in thought as a
single notion; only the limitations of language require us to formulate
this notion in four separate words.
Saadia nevertheless afrms the personal notion of God that arises
from creation. His extreme caution on the question of plurality in
connection with the attributes, rather than reecting reverence for the
conclusions of intellectual inquiry (as is actually the case with Maimonides), more likely reects sensitivity to the difference between the
Jewish concept of Gods absolute unity and the Christian doctrine of
the Trinity (to which he dedicates a great deal of polemical attention).
Saadia wants to banish compositeness from theological discourse. The
Torahs doctrine of divine unity does not tolerate plurality.
The Good God
So far, the biblical concept of God has been preserved throughout the
discussion of the conception of God. The impress of that concept is
still more visible in those contexts where God appears as the object of
human worship. From the fact of being creator of the world and humanity, God is already conceived as the source of absolute lovingkindness.
Creation is the revelation of a will whose sole motive is benecence,
to do good in the most perfect way possible. It is inconceivable that
God should harbor malecent motives or evil intentions toward His
creatures. He creates them for their good, not for His sake. It necessarily follows from Gods goodness that He should govern the world
and exercise providence over it by means of commandments and prohibitions, by bestowing free will on human beings, and by educating
them through reward and punishment. And from all this, it follows
further that God will exercise His providence justly in all matters of
reward and punishment for human actions, both in this world and in
the world to come.


chapter one

All these assumptions give rise to many of the central problems in

religious thought, with which Saadia will deal in the remainder of the
book: free will, providence, the substance of reward and punishment,
and the apparent discrepancy between material fortune and moral
desert (the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper).
For now, we summarize: God, whom Saadia portrays as the cause of
the world, is the personal God, Creator, Commander, Benecent One,
master of providence and retribution, as depicted in the Bible.

Saadias Anthropology
So far we have discussed Saadias theology and the biblical sources that
underlie it. We will now set next to it his view of human nature, which
is also drawn from Scripture, to which his rational arguments provide
no more than a cosmetic veneer.
Mankind is the purpose of creation. Everything is prepared for him,
for his survival and happiness. We learn this not only from the Bible,
but also from experience. Humanity is found in the middle of the
world-order, between heaven and earth, and observation teaches that
the middle, the heart, is the primary part (like the seed in the fruit).
Why are we so privileged? What qualies us for this dignity? The
answer, of course, is human reason. Saadia refers here not only to
potential reason in the abstract, but its actual achievements:
By virtue of it man preserves the memory of deeds that happened long
ago, and by virtue of it he foresees many of the things that will occur in
the future. By virtue of it he is able to subdue the animals so that they
may till the earth for him and bring in its produce. By virtue of it he is
able to draw the water from the depth of the earth to its surface; he even
invents irrigating wheels that draw the water automatically. By virtue of
it he is able to build lofty mansions, to make magnicent garments, and
to prepare delicate dishes. By virtue of it he is able to organize armies
and camps, and to exercise kingship and authority for establishing order
and civilization among men. By virtue of it he is able to study the nature
of the celestial spheres, the course of the planets, their dimensions, their
distances from one another, as well as other matters relating to them.10

The biblical roots of this conception of human wisdom are quite clear.
This speaks of practical wisdom and knowledge of the world. It is far

Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, IV, 1, Altmann 117.

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removed from the philosophical outlook that sets for man the goal
of knowing metaphysical truth or the divine nature. The goal here is
not knowledge of God, but fulllment of His commandments in His
Importance of the Terrestrial World
Here we raise the question: If man is so exalted, why was he placed in
a despicable material vessel, sunk in pain and suffering? Does this not
refute the notion of humanitys centrality in Gods eyes?
Saadia answers: All is for humanitys benet, to educate them to
know their duty and direct them toward their true goal.
Two additional major assertions are implicit in this answer. The
human being is a creature destined to live in two worlds, and the one
world is a means to achievement of the other. This world is a vestibule
before the world to come. This is an assumption on which Saadia bases
his whole religious vision (and we have yet to see the importance of
this view for his ethics). It is impossible that this world should be the
end of lifes road, for Gods benecence necessitates that the good He
bestows on us should be absolute and permanent good. This world was
arranged so that through our service in it we should accumulate merit
for the world to come. This service implies full afrmation of the life
of this world, lived according to the material, social, and psychological
conditions pertaining to it.
The Righteous Suffer, the Wicked Prosper
We will now address Saadias approach to the problem of theodicy. Why
do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? The answer is wholly
based on the assumption that the human being is a creature destined to
live in two worlds. The righteous receive the punishment for their few
misdeeds in this world, and the wicked receive the reward for their few
good deeds. All this takes place in this world, so that they shall receive
their true deserts without admixture in the world to come.
To this scenario, Saadia adds the notion of divine trial. God tries
His creatures through suffering. The righteous person knows why he
is being tried. He knows that the purpose of this trial is to add to his
merit, to increase his reward. Therefore he is encouraged and stands
rm. This view is quite remote from the philosophical outlooks that
penetrated Jewish thought in the following generations. Saadia is caught


chapter one

in the embrace of rabbinic views, to which he adds his philosophical

The Role of Human Material Existence
In the religious philosophy that developed after Saadia, there was widespread acceptance of the view that materiality is the cause of human
deciency and evil. It is therefore important to emphasize that Saadia
related positively to mans material condition. There is no trace in his
thought of the notion that evil is caused by materiality per se.
Materiality is not the cause of human temptations or deciencies.
Saadia attributes these directly to the soul, in which (following a generalized Platonic schema) he distinguishes three faculties: appetite (in
common with plants), anger (in common with animals), and reason,
which governs the others. Saadia asserts that these faculties are manifested in the soul, which is joined to the body, but he nds no feature
in the body to account for the difference between them. Furthermore,
he does not regard the manifestation of these qualities in the soul as a
deciency, but rather as a necessary condition for maintenance in the
life of this world. The body is given to man as an instrument for action,
to work and make and produce, for this is the human task in this world.
Furthermore, through activity and production he achieves happiness in
this world and accumulates merit for the next world. This is a central
assumption on whose basis Saadia develops his ethical theory.
Free Will and the Problems It Raises
The next stage in Saadias doctrine of human nature is the discussion of
human free will and the problems it raises. We note that Saadia did not
at rst raise the theoretical problem that follows from the contradiction
between natural law and free will. He is bothered by another question:
Why did God give man the freedom to choose evil and thereby come
to grief ? He responds that precisely thus is expressed Gods lovingkindness vis--vis humankind. He gives them the opportunity to really
earn their reward. There is no comparison between the good that one
receives gratuitously as a gift, and the good that one earns through
genuine merit. The special status and active role of humankind in
this world require that they be free. God does not compel them, but
commands them, and gives them the power and potential to do what
is commanded and refrain from what is forbidden them.

r. saadia gaon


The emphasis that Saadia puts on the notion of free will is characteristic. He draws a difference between inaction on Gods part and on
mans. When God refrained from creation prior to the existence of the
world, this was not to be counted as negative action, for existence
has no opposite. But a person is counted as an actor, whether performing an action or refraining from one. Refraining from one thing is
tantamount to doing the opposite. Therefore it is proper for a person
to receive reward or punishment both for performing a positive action
and for refraining from it.
This notion implicitly places a high value on a persons activity in
the life of this world, in contrast to the contemplative philosophical
ideal that prevailed in the following period.
Conceiving God as observing and knowing all human actions,
together with the afrmation of human freedom, posed a difcult theological problem of which the Bible seems unaware. The rabbis were
aware of the problem but offered no solution to it. Saadia is also aware
of it and devotes some attention to it, but he does not seem to consider
it of great importance. His main argument is that even though God
knows all human deeds in advance, His knowledge is not a compelling
reason causing people to act the way they do. Gods knowledge operates on one level, and human action on another level. According to
this view, Gods foreknowledge of what will happen in the world has
nothing to do with God being a comprehensive, determinate cause of
all mundane events by some eternal law emanating from Him. On the
contrary, Saadia seems to regard Gods knowledge as similar to ones
sympathetic knowledge that a friend will act in a particular way, though
this knowledge is hardly a cause of the friends action.
It is clear that this solution depends on a rather simplistic approach.
Saadia does not deal with the logical difculties implicit in it. When we
set this beside the rabbinic saying, All is foreseen, yet free will is given,
there is little difference. Saadias version is longer, and somewhat more
explicit in his statement of the problem.
Physical Theory of the Soul
We mentioned above the faculties of the soulappetite, anger, and
reasonin accord with the Platonic theory. But Saadias conception of
the nature of the soul is not Platonic, but rather closer to the outlook
of the Stoics.


chapter one

Plato considered the soul a spiritual entity joined unwillingly to the

body. Saadia, on the other hand, regarded the soul as a material substance, though of the most ethereal sort, even surpassing the celestial
bodies in purity, and therefore invisible to the eye. It is conjoined to
the body at the heart by means of the blood, and acts through the
body. The body is considered a mere instrument, and the source of its
actions is in the inner motions of the soul, through the three faculties.
Reason governs the lower faculties and directs the proper deeds of the
person. We should emphasize that even the faculty of reason belongs to
this ethereal material substance. In Saadias view, the human intellect
is not a purely spiritual entity.
This conception of the soul enables Saadia to afrm in a simple
fashion the whole corpus of rabbinic views concerning the immortality
of the soul and the reward and punishment of the world to come. When
the body dies, the soul is separated from it and survives on its own.
The souls of the wicked move on to Gehenna (Hell) which is located
under the earth, where they are burned with a re more ethereal than
the re of this world; still, it is real re in a real place. The souls of
the righteous ascend to a heavenly location, where they are illuminated
by the light of the divine glorya light unlike that of the sun, but a
substantial light nonetheless.
Saadia is also able to depict the resurrection of the dead in accordance with this view. The soul returns to earth and inhabits a body
similar to the one it possessed originally. Saadia depicts the details of
the resurrection in a fashion that would provoke Maimonides to irony
and ridicule.
On all these topics, Saadia perpetuates traditional notions that
originated with the rabbis. He tries to demonstrate that on those issues
where the rabbinic view surpasses that of the Bible in degree of detail
(for instance, reward and punishment after death, survival of the soul,
and the resurrection), it is nevertheless based on the Bible. His original
contribution is limited to his attempt to prove that these traditional views
are compatible with a scientic, rational account of experience.

Saadias Ethics
On the basis of Saadias theology and anthropology it is possible to
present his theory of religious ethics in a systematic fashion.

r. saadia gaon


We will start with several premises, which are based on the preceding discussion:
1. The Duality in Saadias Conception of Man
We have already seen that Saadias teaching seeks to encompass and
balance certain pairs of assumptions that involve, if not quite a contradiction, at least a dialectical tension. From an ethical standpoint, the
most striking and important duality is on the one hand his theocentric
conception of the human being, who stands in a position of absolute
dependence and absolute subordination to the creator-God; and on
the other hand the anthropocentric conception of God, who has the
human being in mind as the central purpose of His creation, on which
account all His actions and commandments are directed at the preservation of man and his happiness, both temporal and eternal. This
tension is perceptible throughout Saadias theology and anthropology.
It is especially noticeable in the explanation he gives for the Torahs
commandments. Man is bound to obey because he is commanded, even
when the commandments are directed at his own benet. And on the
other hand, even when man fullls the arbitrary commandments that
express his subordination to God, it is ultimately for his own benet
rather than Gods.
The same tension is manifest in Saadias remarks on the obligation to
verify the words of revelation through reason. He balances this tension
by addressing the apparent contradiction between the human beings
status as an independent creature of free will, qualied to determine the
good and bad for himself, and his obligation to obey God absolutely.
Since the divine command is for mans benet and obedience is also
for his benet, Saadia thinks that there is no contradiction here but
complementarity between autonomy and heteronomy.
2. The Duality in Saadias Conception of Good and Evil
From here there follows a second tension, associated with his denition
of good and evil. In Saadias view, good and evil are measured by a
utilitarian criterion. The human being is directed to strive for wellbeing in the simplest sense: to maintain himself in health and security, to
satisfy his needs, to achieve happiness. Nevertheless, Saadia insists that
good and bad be presented as absolute and universal, i.e. we are not
speaking of the private advantage of individuals, but of what is good
for all. In other words, Saadia does not argue that it is forbidden to


chapter one

harm another because in the nal reckoning it will be to the detriment

of the perpetrator, because of the disturbance of social order or the
breakdown of security. His argument is more basic. It is impossible that
the same action be good and evil at the same time. If an action is good
for me but bad for my neighbor, then it is good and bad at the same
time, which is logically absurd. The good by denition is good to all.
We note that this is a primitive approximation of the Kantian categorical imperative. But how can this be squared with the utilitarian
criterion of good and evil? Sometimes I must override my private happiness for the sake of the other! Saadias simple answer is based on the
doctrine of reward: man is destined for two worlds. Thus the pain of
my self-abnegation in this world will stand as merit toward the reward
of the future world. Whoever knows this in advance will rejoice in doing
good for his neighbor, even at his own expense and pain.
3. The Duality in Saadias Conception of Action
We have a third tension that arises from Saadias notion that the human
being is destined for two worlds. He does not recommend that we leave
this world in a hurry, even though he sees it as a vestibule to the next
world. Even here, in this world, one must strive for longevity, prosperity
and happiness, for only through afrmation of this transient life do we
merit the life to come. There follows from this a special attitude toward
action in Saadias teaching. We have already seen that his doctrine
is fundamentally activist. A person is given her body for the sake of
action. Human wisdom is practical wisdom, and one merits eternity
through ones deeds. But the purpose of all these deeds is repose in
eternity. Still, this repose will not be an absence of activity, but the fruit
of action. It is its fruit, not in the sense that the one is the external
means to the other, but the product is the content of the achievement.
In other words, what the person enjoys in the hereafter is the fullness
and culmination of ones lifetime of activity, the intensive satisfaction
from ones deeds.
That is the profound meaning of Saadias argument that there
is no comparison between the good that one receives gratuitously,
and the good and happiness that one earns through ones deeds. In
contemporary language, we can say that by doing good one achieves
self-actualization, and the repose in the next world is the joy that results
from this. It is not transient, but a joy that abides forever. Only in this
way can we understand how Saadia afrms this world even in his afrmation of the world to come. Just as the Sabbath is the culmination

r. saadia gaon


of the workday week, so the world to come is the culmination of this

world. Just as there is no Sabbath without the work-week, so there is
no world-to-come without this world.
Mans Obligation to God
A person is obligated to thank her benefactor. This thanks is expressed
in deeds. The deeds follow partly from reasons self-commandment, and
partly from fulllment of commands that have no direct human utility
and are not required by reason.
On the basis of these assumptions, Saadia enters into further specication of the principles underlying the Torahs commandments, which
he lists as the following four:
1. The Wise One commands His followers to thank Him for His
2. The Wise One commands His followers not to vilify Him.
3. The Wise One commands His followers not to harm one
4. The Wise One commands various deeds of no direct benet to
those who do them, in order to increase their reward.
These four principles include the two types of commandments that
we mentioned earlier: the rational (principles #13) and the positivearbitrary (principle #4). Saadias intention is more readily understood
if we consider the source behind his four principles, namely the Ten
Commandments. Principle #1 reects the rst two commandments
(I am the Lord, and You shall have no other gods). Principle #2
reects the third commandment (Do not take the name of the Lord in
vain). Principle #3 reects the ethical precepts of the second table (You
shall not murder, etc.) Principle #4 reects the commandment of the
Sabbath, which Saadia counts among the positive commandments.
However, the Ten Commandments also express the general principles
underlying the whole Torah. Thus Saadia has found a rational basis,
directly or indirectly, for deriving all the commandments of the Torah,
which when taken together prescribe the proper worship of God.
The Ladder of Righteousness
Service to God is measured by the degree of perfection in which a
person fullls the commandments of the Torah. It is interesting that


chapter one

Saadia does not pay attention to the distinction between heartfelt

observance and rote behavior. The range of deeds that a person performs, and the proportion of good deeds to sins, determine a persons
moral rank.
The righteous are ranked according to the following scale:
1. The perfect is one who is meritorious in all his deeds. Saadia
emphasizes that achieving this rank is within the realm of human
possibility. This is characteristic of his optimistic outlook, which
is related to his view that evil is not an essential part of human
existence, not even of material existence.
2. The good person is one who is meritorious in the majority of his
3. The scrupulous is one who has devoted himself to one particular
commandment, which he observes to perfection.
The wicked are ranked according to the following scale:
1. The bad person is one the majority of whose deeds count as guilt,
or demerits.
2. The disobedient is one who refuses to observe one particular
3. The negligent is one who treats positive injunctions lightly.
4. The sinner is one who transgresses minor prohibitions.
5. The felon is one who transgresses major prohibitions.
6. The apostate is one who repudiates all the commandments of
the Torah.
We have two points to make about this ladder of ranking. First, except
for the perfect and the apostate who dene the extreme cases, all
the intermediate levels differ only theoretically. Even the good person
who is meritorious in the majority of his deeds has common characteristics with certain types of the wicked part of the ladder, and he
is in need of purication and correction.
Second, in the course of Saadias distinction between degrees of merit
and demerit, there creeps in a fundamental biblical distinction that is
based not in reason but in authority, namely the distinction between
major and minor commandments. This distinction is determined
arbitrarily by the Torahs ranking of the commandments; thus the
principle of obedience for its own sake gains added weight.

r. saadia gaon


Repentance is not a central notion in Saadias thought, because he
does not consider sin to be a necessary component of mans situation
in the world. The possibility of repentance follows from the principle
of free will that God gave us, and he places no limit on it with respect
to the done deed. Regret for sin, atonement for sin, the decision not
to sin again, and abiding by this decisionall these fall in the category
of repentance, and wipe out the sin between the human being and
God. This idea is a standard part of rabbinic thought, and Saadia has
nothing to add here.
Saadias distinction between merits and demerits is also part of
the popular tradition. Merit and demerit have meaning with respect
to the state of the soulsin sullies the soul, while the performance
of commands puries it. To be sure, the basic notion of merit and
demerit in Saadias thought do not pertain to the soul, but have
a decidedly judicial character. Merit is what tips the scale toward
innocence, while demerit tips it toward guilt. Reward and punishment come to a person depending on the overall balance of his merits
and demerits.
The Purpose of Serving God
It follows from this that the purpose of serving God is to accumulate
merit for the world to come by performing all the actions that the
Torah commands, not necessarily those actions that are directly in
the province of serving God. This is how Saadia depicts the state of
the ideal soul of the person who is ensconced in the service of God:
When a person has achieved the knowledge of this lofty subject [Gods
unity] by means of rational speculation and the proof of the miracles
and marvels, his soul believes it as true and it is mingled with his spirit
and becomes an inmate of its innermost recesses. The result is then that,
whenever the soul walks in its temple, it nds it . . . Moreover his soul
becomes lled with completely sincere love for God, a love which is beyond
all doubt . . . That servant of God will also grow accustomed to remembering God in the daytime when he does his work and at night when he
lies on his bed . . . Nay it will almost speakI mean his spiritmoaning
at the recollection of God, out of longing and yearning . . . Nay more, the
mention of God will nourish his soul more than fatty foods and His name
quench its thirst better than the juiciest fruit . . . The souls attachment to
God will become so great that it will refer all its affairs to Him, trusting
and reposing complete condence in Him always. . . .


chapter one
The result of this is that when God affords it pleasure, the soul is grateful, and if He causes it pain, it endures it patiently . . . Aye, even if God
were to separate the soul from its body, it would be indulgent toward Him
and not entertain misgivings about Him on that account . . . The more it
contemplates His being, the more does it fear and revere Him . . . Also the
more it considers His attributes, the greater becomes its praise of Him and
the more does it rejoice in Him . . . Thus it reaches the point where it loves
those that love Him and honors those that honor Him . . . On the other
hand, it hates those that hate Him and is hostile to His enemies . . . In this
way it is induced to take up His cause and to refute everyone that raises
arguments against Him, by the employment of reason and knowledge,
not with harshness . . . It will furthermore laud and praise Him justly and
uprightly, not by attributing to Him exaggerations and absurdities. . . .11

Does this passage contradict the previous description of a service that

operates through accumulating merits in all the domains of worldly
activity and through the pursuit of worldly and spiritual happiness?
It seems that this is not a contradiction, but emphasis of the other
direction, which is also possible. Saadia describes here a state of being
head-over-heels in love of the Supreme Being, the Creator and Governor of the world, out of complete trust in His existence and in His
absolute goodness. But in this state of love-madness there is no tendency
to austerity, only total reliance on the divine in all ones deeds, in the
rm assurance that everything is for the best.
The Middle Way
There is a characteristic trend in medieval Jewish ethics, even in those
movements with pronounced ascetic tendencies, which is to hew to the
principle of the golden mean. One should not give in to extremism of
any sort. Asceticism and hedonism are both ethically wrong. Generally speaking, Saadias ethics follows this pattern also. But the notion
of the mean is quite broad, and it can be interpreted in various ways
that differ noticeably from each other. Saadias way is perhaps the most
original of them all.
The principle by which Saadia dened his middle way is the
principle that he emphasized in his doctrine of creation. The one God
creates a complex world characterized by plurality, and this plurality
has its unifying principle in its relation to the Creator. For purposes of


Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, II, 13, Rosenblatt 1324.

r. saadia gaon


ethics Saadia drew from this the conclusion that just as one must avoid
belief in plurality with respect to God, so one must avoid an approach
that denies the plurality and compositeness that is manifest in created
reality, that emphasizes one element and impugns others. The perpetuation of the world is the perpetuation of all its parts. The perpetuation
of man is the perpetuation of all his organs and functions. They strive
for unity, but this must necessarily be a harmony of all the parts, and
the golden mean is the way of harmonizing all the functions of the
soul through the medium of the body.
These assertions, voiced in the opening of the discussion in the Tenth
Treatise of the Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, are directed in debate against
the ascetic tendencies in religious morality. Only a mode of conduct
that gives the pluralism of the human soul its due, can succeed in
perpetuating the human person. He expresses this also in an incisive
interpretation of the famous recurring verse in Ecclesiastes. Vanity of
vanities only applies when the persona of that book (standing in for
Everyman) attempts to pursue one goal in isolation from the rest. But
if one follows the path of harmonization of ones powers and faculties, this is not vanity. The same applies to one who applies himself
exclusively to religious worship of God, or exclusively to wealth, honor,
or power.
It is therefore proper to combine all our faculties in reciprocal fashion. In this way we can manifest the virtues appropriate to each area
of behavior in a way that we do not go to excess with one and stint
the others. This conclusion guides Saadia in developing the systematic
structure of his ethical theory.
The Supremacy of Reason
Given that it is essential to preserve harmony, the next step follows
logically. Wisdomthe thinking process that judges the correct measure
for every actionmust govern all human actions. Thus we must have
recourse again to Saadias psychology. It determines, as we said, that
the soul has three primary faculties: the appetitive, the irascible,12 and
the cognitive. All of them are judged positive in their role, but the rst
two stand under the guidance of the cognitive. Wisdom is not presented

Though anger is primary in this faculty, it includes love as well. Affective or
emotional may be a more precise designation.


chapter one

in this fashion as an end-goal, but as a means: it monitors the active

life, and there is no conict between it and the other faculties of the
soul that are inuenced by the body.
From the notion of unifying plurality Saadia also learns the need
to listen to the wise individual as well as to wisdom in the abstract.
Morality is codied in the Torah and is determined by the legal system
in which rabbinic scholars play the decisive role. His whole discussion
is built on this premise, for the content of ethical behavior is found in
the Torah, and his whole philosophical investigation is aimed at the
comprehensive justication of the norms that are dened in the halakhic system. Later on, Saadia enumerates thirteen modes of conduct
that correspond to the thirteen attributes of mercy revealed to Moses:
abstinence, eating, mating, desire, child-rearing, habitation, longevity,
money, dominion, vengeance, worship, wisdom, and repose.
This is an inventive literary structure. Saadia seems to suggest that
each of these ways represents a party with that as its banner: the party
of abstinence, the party of eating, the party of mating, etc. But this is
but a methodical device. Saadia wants to show that if a person follows
one of these paths and neglects the othersor if he even neglects a
single onehe will not succeed in getting to his goal even on the one
path to which he devotes himself, because exceeding the proper measure
and stinting the other satisfactions and functions will cause suffering
and ruin. Excessive abstinence will not achieve purication but only
exacerbation of the appetitive urges that have been repressed. Only if
we use abstinence wisely, as a principle of limitation, it will be useful
to us. But even pursuit of wisdom for its own sake, without practical
application in conjunction with the other paths, will turn wisdom into
folly, and similarly with each of the other paths.
The conclusion is simple. One should follow all the paths, and discover the proper proportion for each satisfaction and for each function.
In this way we will insure that our actions shall lead to good for us and
for those we affect, and when the time comes we will merit the reward
promised us for the world to come.



Our assertion that Saadia was the rst of the medieval Jewish philosophers whose writings have reached us in their entirety requires some
qualication. The same time-period saw a second beginning in a different direction. It was made by a Jewish thinker who seems to have been
born before Saadia but died after himfor by one testimony he lived
over 100 years, from the middle of the 9th century to the middle of
the 10th. We are speaking of R. Isaac ben Solomon Israeli. We know
little about his life. We know that he lived in Egypt until age 50, then
moved to Kairowan, in the Maghreb (western North Africa), where an
important Jewish center had developed. He was a famous physician
and was appointed as physician to the royal court.
Israelis Status as Philosopher
There is a debate about the importance of Israelis contribution to
philosophy. Maimonides belittled him as a mere physician in the letter where he mentioned his predecessors. Indeed, Israeli was a more
important physician than Maimonides, and his medical works served
long afterwards as basic texts in European universities.
There is also a debate about whether he was truly a Jewish philosopher, for he does not deal with any specically Jewish issues, though
he deals generally with the question of the relation of philosophical
writings to scripture. Nevertheless, he is of primary importance as
a general philosopher, for thanks to his writing we know something
about the early development of theories whose actual sources have not
survived. He is also important for Jewish philosophy because he was a
pioneer in introducing the neo-Platonic philosophy within Jewish circles
and had inuence (apparently direct) on the thought of Solomon Ibn
Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra, Joseph Ibn Tzaddik, and the early Gerona


chapter two

His Writings
Israeli wrote several medical works, as we mentioned. Three philosophical works of his have come down to us: Book of Denitions (dealing with
the denition of philosophical terms such as philosophy, science,
etc.), Book of Elements (referring to the four terrestrial elements: earth,
water, air, and re), and Book of Essences, which was discovered about
50 years ago in Leningrad.
The contribution of these writings to Jewish philosophy focuses on
two areas:
1. The doctrine of emanation and its relation to creation.
2. The doctrine of prophecy and its relation to philosophical understanding.
The Source of the Doctrine of Emanation
The founder of the neo-Platonic philosophy that developed as an
alternative to the Aristotelian philosophy was the Greek philosopher
Plotinus (3rd century). This school is characterized by its religious tendency, motivated by the striving for the human souls unication with
the Godhead. For this purpose it is necessary to conceive the entire
universe as a unied continuum that ows from the hidden divine
source, but in order to arrive at the foundation of this outlook one must
overcome Aristotles dualistic distinction between matter and form as
two separate constituents of natural entities.
In Aristotles view all earthly entities are comprised of two separate
parts, each with its own principle. Matter is the principle of corporeality, and form is the principle of the conceptual or spiritual essence.
According to this conception, God is the source of the forms, and
the principle of corporeality is independent of God. This distinction
contradicted Plotinuss mystical notion that man is generated from the
Godhead and can become reunited with it. The doctrine of emanation
seeks to overcome the split between the supernal and lower worlds. It
seeks to show how all being ows from the divine source and generates plurality and materiality in successive stages. Thus is formed a
hierarchical ladder of being by whose means it is possible to ascend
and return to the hidden divine source.

r. isaac ben solomon israeli


Israelis Doctrine of Emanation

Israeli described this process as a process of self-contraction of the
Godhead out of its yearning to reveal itself to the other. The hidden
Godhead creates out of its very self the other to whom it revels itself
in a two-stage process: the (positive) extension of the divine ow, and its
(negative) limitation. This process continues in stages: from the innite
Godhead ows a rst hypostasis: the universal Intellect of the world,
which is as if a shadow of the absolute divine spirit. From the universal Intellect proceeds a second shadow: the universal intellectual Soul
(the unied totality of all human beings) and afterwards the animal
Soul (the totality of all animal souls) and vital (or vegetative) soul
(totality of all plants). The next level is the heavenly sphere that
demarcates the spiritual realm from the material realm. The heavenly
sphere is depicted by Israeli as a spiritual entity that also bears the
start of materiality in potential. Therefore the cyclical movement of
the heavenly sphere produces the four elements of the material world:
earth, water, air and re.
The continued motion of the sphere brings about the mixture of
these elements, which leads to the appearance of various materials
that are predisposed to receive the various formsthe vegetative, the
animal, and the human, which are thus manifested not only in their
universal aspect but as concrete individuals who are born, die, and
change constantly as we see in nature.
We note that here is an organic conception of the world whose prototype is the human being, who comprises in himself intellect, rational
soul, animal soul, vegetative soul, and material body comprised of the
elements. Thus every person is a microcosm, a reection of the larger
Israelis Picture of the World
In any case, the picture of the world that was formed as a result of
this emanational process is divided into four parts:
1. The realm that is beyond all conception, comprising God Himself in His innite, absolute being, as well as the potential latent
within Him in complete hiddenness to bring forth a world from
His inner self. In other words, we have here the general, abstract
principle of materiality as well as the general, abstract principle
of formality.


chapter two
2. The realm of intellect, which comprises specically the ten Intellects, of which the rst emanates from God and the others emanate from the rst Intellect.
3. The realm of soul, which comprises the Intellectual Soul (of the
human species), the Animal Soul, and the Vital (or vegetative)
4. The physical realm, which comprises the heavenly sphere; the
four elements (earth, water, air and re) which in Israelis view
were created ex nihilo by the motion of the sphere; the entities
composed of these four elements; and nally the articial creations
manufactured by humanity.

This model of the worldwhose distinguishing element is the idea that

the material principle (the source of the physical objects of nature) is to
be found in potential in the Godhead itselfis at any rate original, and
it had a certain inuence, especially on the philosophy of R. Solomon
Ibn Gabirol, and through it also on Jewish kabbalists and Christian
The Difculty in Understanding the Transition from Spiritual to Material
Describing the world as a process of tzimtzum (self-contraction of the
divine: self-limitation and individuation) and coarsening (transformation of the spiritual to material being) raises the logical and religious
difculties that are bound up in the transition from the pure spirituality
of divinity to the material world. From a logical standpoint, this would
seem to be a self-contradiction: the purely spiritual is opposed by its
nature to the material. How, then, can one understand the assumption
that the material and corporeal is found potentially as a general principle in the Godhead itself ? From a religious standpoint this contradicts
the assumption shared by most Jewish thinkers that the material world
was created ex nihilo, not emanated from God Himself !
To be sure, Israelis position on this issue is far from clear. We nd
in him expressions that sound like a description of a continual process
of emanation from the spiritual to the physical, and then the notion
of ex nihilo must be understood only as a physical substance that is
derived from a physical absence (in other words, it is derived from a
non-physical substance that is its basis). But there are places in which
he speaks of the distinction between three classes of generated entities (as contrasted with eternal entities): those that are created ex nihilo

r. isaac ben solomon israeli


(the elements), those that are created from prior beings according to
the laws of nature (composite objects), and those that have their being
from human creation (articial objects). According to this conception,
the transition from the heavenly sphere to terrestrial nature is viewed
as an act of creation, which would imply that the material substance is
not a smooth continuation of the process of emanation (and it is indeed
hard to explain the jump from the spiritual to the material otherwise)!
But this voluntaristic conception drives a dualistic split into the neoPlatonic doctrine that strives for unity. We can easily sense that the
argumentative character of Israelis discourse results from his desire to
approximate the neo-Platonic monistic theory while remaining faithful
to the idea of creation based in the Bible.
The second topic on which Israelis thought was inuential was the
theory of prophecy. Saadias remarks suggested one simple-enough
direction for understanding the phenomenon of prophecy. Saadia
described the phenomenon itself as it is described in the Bible: the
prophet sees symbolic visions and hears an explicit utterance. He was
only bothered by the question how these visions are generated and how
the divine word sounds, but he does not attribute to the prophet any
special kind of cognition. In this respect the prophets cognition is the
same as the common persons.
With Israeli there occurs a far-reaching change in this matter. In
his neo-Platonic approach the content of the prophetic experience
changes completely, as well as the function it serves, and inevitably its
character as well.
The basis of the change is that Israeli, unlike Saadia, accepts the ideal
of knowledge of eternal truth as the highest purpose of humankind.
This valuation stands at the basis of the very doctrine of emanation,
which was developed out of philosophical reection: analysis of the
relation between human knowledge and its objects. The hierarchy of
beings is a ladder through whose knowledgein a continuing process
of independent contemplationthe individual attains his purpose and
comes to know the source of his being. The prophet is not one who hears
Gods wordsin the common literal sense of that expressionbut
one who has succeeded in arriving at the highest level in knowledge
of the truth of himself and his origin.


chapter two

This conception will raise a whole series of problems. First, instead

of God turning to man in the simple sense, Israeli speaks of mans
elevation to approach divinity. Second, the mission of the prophet
acquires a new meaning: it is his task to reveal spiritual truth, and this
also inuences the understanding of the essence of the Torah and its
commandments. But Israeli did not raise these questions for explicit
discussion. A general question occupied him, one which indeed contained the rest by implication: what is the difference between the prophet
and the philosopher? The knowledge of eternal truth is a philosophical
ideal, but the Torah grants prophets a higher authority. How, then, is
the prophet preferable to the philosopher?
Israelis solution is on the one hand the identication of their respective tasks, and on the other hand ascribing to the prophet a higher rank
of realization of the goal. The prophet is rst of all a philosopher, and
by means of philosophy he ascends on that ladder of levels of being
that we described above to a higher level. What is the nature of that
The prophet sees visions. In Israelis view (as against Saadia), he
arouses for that purpose his imaginative faculty. In other words, prophetic knowledge is similar to a dream-apparition, which is an activity
of the imaginative faculty, not representation of reality. But this does
not lead Israeli to reduce prophecy to a subjective state. He argues
from the other side that the imaginative faculty in a person can be
activated and envisioned not only by the senses, but also by the intellect, and can reveal to us in this way intellectual truths of the highest
order. On the other hand, the intermediate state in the mindthat of
intellectual imaginingsexists outside of the soul as well, so that what
the prophet sees with the help of his vision is the representation of a
higher domain of reality to which the philosopher cannot rise or have
experience of it. The task of the prophet is therefore to interpret these
visions with his reason and to communicate them to others who cannot
achieve prophecy. We can note here an evolution in the direction of
the Maimonidean doctrine of prophecy.
Israelis Place in Jewish Philosophy
Despite Maimonidess withering criticism, Israeli marks a transition
to a new stage in the development of Jewish philosophy. After him,
philosophy is no longer just a tool for interpreting and validating the

r. isaac ben solomon israeli


revelation in the Bible, but it is a spiritual vocation worth pursuing and

attaining in its own right. Israeli identies the philosophical yearning for
knowledge of the truth as the highest religious ideal. This transformation
will be visible in a more systematic and consistent way in the thought
of R. Baya Ibn Pakudah and R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol.



In order to appreciate the full signicance of the change that occurred

between Saadia and the Jewish thinkers who followed him, we should
study the thought of one Jewish thinker who was extremely inuential,
even if it is doubtful whether we can describe him as a philosopher
in the professional sense of this conceptR. Baya Ibn Pakudah, the
author of The Duties of the Heart.
Essentially, this book describes the progress of the individual from his
rst education until his attaining the highest level of service of God.
Only the rst two chapters of this book deal with topics that actually
belong to the domain of philosophy. Still, he is a witness to the change
that has occurred in philosophical study. On the one hand, he bases
himself explicitly on Saadias Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, praises it as a
foundational text and assumes its conclusions as the starting point of
his discussion. On the other hand, on every topic he pushes forward
beyond its intellectual horizon. It thus appears that only his desire to
address a broad popular audience and the need to rely on recognized
rabbinic authority keep him from impressing on his readers the deep
philosophical differences between his own views and the book which
he cites to give them Jewish legitimization.
Nevertheless, we should stress that this is not an exceptional phenomenon. On the contrary, it is widespread and characteristic. The
Jewish thinkers who were inuenced by neo-Platonism in the 11th and
12th centuries (such as R. Abraham Bar iyya, R. Joseph Ibn Tzaddik,
R. Moses Ibn Ezra, R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, and R. Judah Halevi) relied
on Saadia to legitimize their involvement in philosophy, though the
focuses of their thought and their religious experience differed from his.
They accepted from Saadia the assumption that there is a necessary
prior agreement between philosophical truth acquired from intellectual
inquiry and the teachings of the Torah. This applies mutatis mutandis to
the Hasidim of medieval Germany; though they had no philosophical
interest per se, they drew considerably on the Book of Doctrines and Beliefs
and imported his views into their mystical outlook. But they required

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


the Gaons authority in order to legitimize a world of ideas that had

no clear precedent in canonical Jewish sources.
The Author
We know practically nothing about the personality of R. Baya Ibn
Pakudah. There is even a debate among the scholars as to whether he
lived before or after R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The disagreement is based
on the fact that there are some parallels between them, and they differ
as to whether one inuenced the other or they were both inuenced
by a common third source. The current prevalent opinion is based on
a citation from Moses Ibn Ezra that the Duties of the Heart was written
in the last third of the 11th century. We know only that R. Baya was
a judge in Spain, but we do not know exactly where.
This is the characteristic fate of a Jewish author: his biography is lost,
even though his book becomes one of the most widely-read, studied,
and inuential books in the broader community to this very day.
The Book and Its Transmission
There are not many books in the area of moral and religious thought
in which one nds so much tension as here between the devotionalemotional tendency of the individual and the established religion.
Nevertheless it became a favorite book, inuential and accepted in the
broad community of students of Torah, apparently because of the
simplicity and clarity of its writing and the rare literary combination
of exact thought and poetic sensibility.
The book was written in Arabic, and the original has come down to
us (it was published in a critical edition by A.S. Yehuda and A. Tzifroni).
It was translated into Hebrew twice by the 12th century (by R. Judah
Ibn Tibbon and R. Joseph Kimchi).
The medievals also ascribed to Baya another work with some inuence, the Kitab Maani Al-Nafs (Theory of the Soul, published under this
name in 1896). It is now clear that this attribution was mistaken.
Reliance on Saadia
Baya bases his views directly on Saadia in the following matters:


chapter three

Enumeration of the sources of knowledgethough he does

not list all four, his terminology leaves no doubt that he borrowed this
from Saadia.
Determining the relation between reason and the Torah
Baya relies on Saadia in positing necessary agreement between certied conclusions of reason and the teachings of the received Torah,
and in demarcating the respective functions of rational inquiry and
revelation, whether in the realm of theoretical knowledge or of the
Rational and received commandmentsBaya accepts the
distinction between rational and received (arbitrary) commandments,
together with Saadias explanation of the difference between them.
Creation of the worldlike Saadia, Baya presents the argument
for the creation of the world prior to the argument for Gods existence.
He even relied on Saadias proofs, though he added his own as well.
The doctrine of attributesOn this topic the similarity is less
blatant, but in Bayas presentation we also nd interwoven Saadias
outlook that one can learn something of the attributes of God from
considering Him as the creator of the world.
Two worldsBaya agrees that the human being is a creature
destined for two worlds, of which the rst is like the vestibule and
the other like the dining hall, all of which is in order that the soul
should earn its status in the spiritual world by its own merits and not
as a favor.
The task of this worldThis world is appointed for deeds, and that
is the justication for why the human soul is forced to descend from its
supernal source and be bound up with the body.
The role of abstinenceHere too Baya includes Saadias position
within a broader rubric. The kind of abstinence that Saadia recommended was for Baya a rst step in the human beings way toward
perfection and spiritual purication. Baya distinguished three levels
of abstinence:
1. Abstinence according to reason.
2. Abstinence according to the Torah.
3. Abstinence according to special superior persons.

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


The second kind of abstinence is in agreement with Saadias views.

TheodicyBaya accepted Saadias view of how one ought to justify
Gods ways even in those cases which appear as the suffering of the
righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. But he added arguments
and justications of his own to Saadias.
It appears that by examining this list it is possible to discern that the
emphasis has shifted. In the matter of abstinence, for example, we see
that Saadias version of abstinenceaccording to the Torahis but
one of several levels of abstinence in Bayas scheme. It follows that
the Torahs level, which Saadia presented as the highest level out of his
opposition to excessive abstinence, is insufcient for Baya. He seeks a
kind of abstinence that is not a mean but an ideal of a religious way
of life. Even so, Baya was opposed to abstinence of a monastic sort,
one that led to dissociation from earthly life and civil existence.
Differences between Baya and Saadia
We will now examine ve major topics in which Baya starts from
Saadias position and goes beyond it: the identication of rational
inquiry and Torah; knowledge of rational truth for its own sake; the
divine attributes; the commandments; and the question of mans relating to the terrestrial world as his home.
The identication of rational inquiry and Torah.
As we saw, the central problem that preoccupied Saadia was how
to achieve certainty in matters of faithhow to overcome doubt. The
solution was to rely on two sources of knowledgerevelation and reasonin a way that reason would resolve the doubts that were raised
concerning the authority of revelation, and revelation would resolve the
doubts that were raised about the adequacy of reason. It is interesting,
however, that Baya Ibn Pakudah seems to have ignored the problem
of doubt in matters of faith. He proceeds from a primal innocent
certainty that God exists, that He is the creator of the world and of
humankind, exercising providence and commanding. He is settled on
these issues, and therefore we nd in his theoretical investigation of
these matters a different motivation and goal, and his arguments are
free of polemic and apologetic. He is focusing on a positive objective:
to deal with the problems raised from the inwardness of the life of
faith. Therefore, the adversary which he confronts is not intellectual
doubt, but the persons evil inclinationthe temptation to forsake the
straight and narrow path that leads to his lifes goal.


chapter three

R. Baya sees no need, then, to prove that the Torah speaks the
truth. Instead, he wishes to redene the division of labor between
the Torah and reason from the standpoint of the achievement of the
persons destiny. Indeed, framing the problem this way leads him to give
preference to rational understanding and to ascribe to it an independent
religious value that is higher than understanding derived simply from
the Torah. In other words, in R. Bayas view, the Torah and reason
are two stages in mans spiritual-religious development. The Torah,
received on authority, is prior in time, and rational understanding is
prior in rank and teleology.
This turn of thought, that represents the Torah as an educational
means that prepares the person for ones intellectual awakening (a
waking-up from the sleeping state of sense-mediated experience), has
far-reaching consequences, rst of all in determining the relationship
between organized religion and the religious experience of individuals. In Saadias conception, there is no room for a distinction between
ofcial religion and personal religion, whereas for Baya this distinction
is a cornerstone of religious consciousness. As a result, one senses in
him a great tension between the ofcial established (halakhic) religion
and the true religious attachment1 of faith. The way of the Torah is
a compromise in his view, and he has a difference and criticism to offer
concerning it and its dangers, especially with respect to fulllment of
the commandments. True religion in his view is that which results from
the power of pure intellectual understanding, not from obedience to
compulsory authority.
Intellectual Understanding as a Goal in Contrast to Popular Organized Religion
From this there follows a different understanding of the purpose of
intellectual understanding in matters of Torah. According to Saadia
this is a commandment (to understand the words of Torah through the
intellect), while according to Baya this is the goalto understand
eternal truth.
Attachment (= absorption, devotion)devekut. Unfortunately the words for the
ultimate religious experience in English and Hebrew do not coincide. Attachment
is too dry, whereas cleaving is archaic. Unio mystica would convey the sense more
accurately but is unintelligible except to scholars of mysticism and Latinists. Ecstasy
misses the mark in the opposite direction, for the connotation in ecstasy of standing
outside oneselfof losing consciousness of the self when achieving union with Godis
not implied by devekut, where simply union or attachment with God is meant.

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


But this is the place to raise two qualications. First, despite his tension with respect to organized religion, he does not break the mold.
He justies it from the political standpoint, and moreover (what is
especially characteristic of him) from the educational standpoint. One
cannot arrive at intellectual understanding without organized religion.
Furthermore, even though Baya has a strong tendency to a life of
austerity, as we said, he does not arrive at a monastic extremism but
only at a private austerity, i.e. an austerity that does not withdraw one
from the framework of ordinary social life, as we shall see. The tension with organized religion is intended to reform it, to shake it out of
its formal routine, to prevent the danger of ossication, and to ll it
with spiritual content. He nevertheless recognizes its necessity for most
people, and for the special few at the start of their journey.
Second, Bayas inclination to the philosophical-intellectual direction, which is appropriate for the special few but not for the people at
large, is balanced by a no-less-strong inclination to religious sensitivity.
At times it appears that the pure religious feelingthe fear and love of
Godare more important in his view than intellectual attainments, in
a way that intellectual inquiry also serves him as a means to awaken the
sense of enthrallment from the greatness of Gods works, His power,
His wisdom and His lovingkindness. Indeed he is referring to the most
exalted feelings, that can be depicted as intellectual feelings, but this
motive neutralizes the elitist tendency that is generally characteristic
of the philosophical stance. This sensitive religiosity addresses ordinary
people also, and raises them to a higher level even though they are
unable to see the truth as the philosophers see it.
These two qualications explain how R. Baya was able to deviate from Saadias position without feeling that he had abandoned
the eld. He only stretched the framework to just within the limits of
The Divine Attributes
It is of course understood that what Baya includes under the rubric
of rational understanding differs from Saadias denition. Saadia
recognizes only physical essences, whereas Baya includes spiritual
essences also. Soul and intellect are spiritual essences for him. Though
he recognizes that God cannot be grasped in thought, his purpose is not
to make his peace with this incapacity and rest content with practical
deeds of service, but rather to strengthen the yearning for perpetual


chapter three

ascension and innite advancement toward the ungrasped truth, which

is nevertheless the true goal of life.
This conception gives rise to a new doctrine of divine attributes,
which includes Saadias views just as the rst step in an innite progression. Saadia recognized only one class of attributes, those which we
learn from the realization that God is the Creatori.e., we know God
from His action. But Baya adds to this class of attributes a second
class, which he calls the attributes of Gods essence, specically, that
God exists, is one, and is eternal.
What does this mean? Does Saadia not also assert that God exists, is
one, and is eternal? Of course! But in our view Saadia does not see in
these assertions, which he understands in their ordinary sense, attributes
that reveal the divine essence, for he never raises the question how it
is possible to say of God that He exists, is one, and is eternal, though
it is clear that one cannot equate the existence, unity, and eternity of
God to the existence, unity and eternity of His creatures. By contrast,
Bayas discussion starts with these questions: in what sense is it possible
to say about God that He exists, is one, and is eternal?
Thus Baya turns Saadias nave assertions into essential attributes
and raises a whole set of new issues:
The issue of the identity between intellectual inquiry and Torah; the
issue of knowing intellectual truth for its own sake; the issue of divine
attributes; the issue of the commandments; and the issue of mans
relating to the terrestrial world as his home.
Systematic consideration requires one to prove rst that God exists,
and afterwards to deal with the question of His unity, whether with
respect to refuting the plurality of gods, or with respect to refuting
Gods compositeness. But when we deal with the questions of Gods
existence and unity as attributes by means of which God becomes
present to human thought, the problem of unity is prior to that of
existence, for the divine unity in its two senses distinguishes God from
all other beings known to us.
If so, in what sense may we say of God that He is one? Baya opens
his analysis by distinguishing between two kinds of unity: passing unity
and true unity. Passing unity applies to every physical object which
we recognize from our sensory experience, and to every spiritual entity
that we recognize from introspection: our mind, our soul. When we
relate to the concept of such an object, we grasp it in our thought as
one, i.e. as an object of denition through a single concept. But we are
quickly convinced that every such object is composite, and it is dened

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


with the help of its constituent parts. It has many characteristics, and
its material substance can be subdivided innitely. Therefore, Baya
terms this kind of unity passing and not permanent, for a second
consideration reveals that this one comprises many ones which can in
turn be subdivided endlessly. By contrast, a true one should be one
in absolute simplicity, a one that has no composition and cannot be
subdivided in any sense. It stands to reason that if we can prove that
God who creates the world is one and there is no other, it is proper that
He should not have any composition, duality or multiplicity (especially
trinity) in Himself. But clearly our minds cannot grasp such a unity,
but only indicate it by the negative assertion that it has no multiplicity
in any respect, for an entity like thisin which we cannot discern any
pluralityis undenable.
This conclusion inevitably has implications for the question of Gods
existence. When we consider the nature of the world, we come to the
conclusion that it has a creator. But does the creator exist in the same
sense that the world or human beings exist? Surely not, for He exists in
absolute unity, and we cannot distinguish His existence from His unitary
essence, which is also beyond our comprehension. The same applies to
Gods eternity. When we consider the world, we conclude that the
God who created it is prior to it. But we cannot form a conception of
this absolute primordiality, for God transcends physical space and time.
In that case, how exactly is God prior to them?
The logical thought-process we have sketched here is dialectical. It
begins with a simple positive assertion: God is one, existing, eternal. We
have no alternative but to understand these concepts in the same way
that we understand them as they apply to physical entities and human
beings. But we immediately nd fault with this conception and deduce
that God is not one, existing, and eternal in this sense, but only in a
higher sense that only God understands. Do we arrive at true knowledge
in this way? R. Baya thinks that this is indeed substantial approximation to knowing what is strictly unknowable. At any rate, this is the
substance of the doctrine of negative attributes: attributes that begin
with afrmation and end with negation. Maimonides would develop
this method to the ultimate degree. Baya was the rst to introduce
this way of thinking into Jewish philosophy.
The doctrine of negative attributes requires the ability to think philosophically, and this was the privilege of a select few. But how do most
people arrive at a reasoned knowledge of God? Baya responds to this
question with the same answer as Saadia. People come to know God


chapter three

primarily through the manifestation of divine wisdom revealed through

the creation of the world, and that is the source of those attributes
that represent God by way of His revelation in natural phenomena.
In Bayas view, contemplation of nature attests to the higher wisdom
that is revealed in every detail. In this respect, argues Baya, there is
no difference between the miracles of existence of an ant or a y or
that of a human being. Only the supernal wisdom that passes beyond
our understanding can explain them all.
However, in addition to the superlative wisdom that is manifest
to all humanity in the natural world, the people of Israel also know
their Creator from the testimony of holy scripture that God revealed
Himself directly to His people. Baya was referring to the miraculous signs that proved Gods providential guidance for all of Jewish
history. It is instructive, however, that Baya prefers the evidence of
divine manifestation in nature to providential manifestation in Jewish
history. This is because from the standpoint of the ordinary individual,
the experience of divine manifestation in nature is immediate and
Experiencing God through nature and history generates a gap between the sophisticated few and the general masses, based on their
different degrees of intellectual comprehension. Baya uses these concepts to explain anthropomorphic expressions in the Torah. The people
can only understand Gods involvement in nature and history through
vivid images. Therefore the Torah speaks in human language. But
beneath the vivid popular-oriented imagery, the philosophic truth lies
The Meaning of the Mitzvot: Duties of the Heart versus Duties of the
The difference between Saadia and Baya in dening the ideal religious
life is most striking in comparing their approaches to the commandments of the Torah. Baya accepted Saadias distinction between
rational and arbitrary commandments, but he combined them within
a more comprehensive scheme, thus giving Saadias categories a different signicance.
In Bayas view, the most basic distinction is between duties of the
heart and duties of the limbs.
Duties of the heart apply to the conscience, in the recesses of ones
heart. Only the person and her creator know if she observes them. But
the duties of the limbs are open to public view.

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


This is a supercial view of the matter. The essential difference is

that the duties of the heart are internal duties that pertain to the soul,
the kernel of the human self, whereas with the duties of the limbs
we are fullling an external obligation. It is clear from this that it is
impossible to fulll the duties of the heart without the proper devotion,
whereas it is possible to fulll the duties of the limbs perfunctorily, in
a mindless, rote fashion.
This distinction brings to a focus the tension between organized
religionwhich is concerned with regular, external complianceand
the inner religion and private spirituality of the individual. In the introduction to his book, Baya expressed his astonishment that the sages
of Israel were not concerned with the duties of the heart and that no
special work had been written devoted to that topic. He deduces from
his reading of the Torah and the rabbis that devotion of the heart
was indeed the central principle for them, yet despite this, no one had
devoted a treatise on it. Baya surely sensed from the tension of his
polemical arguments with prior Jewish thinkers that he was innovating
here (even though he supported his argument with traditional citations).
He saw himself as one who had come to ll a great and momentous
historic gap: to restore religious life to its proper condition.
It is no accident that his predecessors, such as Saadia, felt no need
to make this distinction, let alone devote a whole treatise to the duties
of the heart. This very distinction is foreign to the conception that it is
the purpose of a human being to perform certain deeds in the world,
where the deeds themselves are viewed as the whole point. Bayas
work represents a radical shift in a different direction.
Baya argues that the duties of the heart are all rational, for reason
knows what is essential for a human being. These duties have no limit
or boundarythey are endless. This is the nature of the connection
between man and Godduty without end. By contrast, the duties of
the limbs are limited, and they alone are subject to the division between
rational and arbitrary. In Saadias thought, the arbitrary commands
express the religious relation between man and God, while Baya
demotes them to a very low level. The arbitrary mitzvot are only a
kind of necessary exercise to educate the person, to bring her to a true
inner acquaintance with her higher rational duty to her God.
The importance of this distinction is signaled by the title of the
book, Duties of the Heart. Baya devoted this book to the idea, and thus
announced his purpose to liberate religious inwardness in Judaism and
to de-emphasize external, institutional, regular and physical worship in
favor of inner devotion.


chapter three

A Stranger in the World: The Opposition of Body and Soul

Within this fundamental distinction between the duties of the limbs and
duties of the heart there subsists another important distinction which
holds the key to understanding Bayas world. The notion of duties
of the heart introduces to Judaism a new sense of reality that differs
completely from what we saw in Saadia. We even dare to say that this
sense of reality is completely different from what was prevalent in the
tradition based on the Bible through the rabbinic literaturenamely,
the sense of mans feeling a stranger in the world.
Bayas monumental innovation here is the sense of oppositional
tension between body and soul. In Saadias view, as we saw, the soul is
conceived as a quite ethereal substance that contains three faculties: the
appetitive, the irascible, and the cognitive. The source of these faculties is not in the body; they just operate through its medium. This is
not the case with Baya. The soul is a spiritual substance in his view,
and its source is in the soul-world that exists beyond the physical
world. It subsists there in the purest unity. It is forced against its higher
interest to become embodied, and only then are there manifested in
it the various faculties through which it can sustain itself in the body.
In other words, in contrast to Saadia, the body is not conceived just
as a means of action in the world of deeds, but also as the root-cause
of the need to act at all, as well as the source of all evil tendencies in
human existence.
In this world the soul is condemned to live in constant tension
between two poles. On the one hand, it is drawn by its original nature
to withdraw from worldly life and return to its spiritual source, and on
the other hand it is tied to worldly life by the body. The body deects
it from its true inclination, and it is trapped in it and languishes far
from its source. In other words: the soul is perverted and corrupted by
its bodily existence. The body traps the soul and distracts it from its
proper focus. This is the necessary way of things in this world. When
a person is still a child and the body is still growing, it is impossible
for the soul to have an autonomous existence. It is entirely devoted to
the needs of the body and is responsible for it. Only when the person
is mature can the soul remind itself of its original nature. But then it
is already tied into bodily habits, and one may well worry that it will
not succeed in breaking free of this bond, for it has acquired a liking
for sensory enjoyment. It is easy to be seduced by the lowerthis is
the danger that lies in wait for the soul in this world . . .

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


Reason is the highest faculty in the soul, and it sometimes appears

from Bayas description that it hovers above it, forming a connection
between it and its point of origin in the pure spiritual realm from which
it emanated. Thus reason itself seems out of place in the material world.
It shines in the human being like a light from above when he starts to
achieve maturity, and his soul becomes aware of the difference between
itself and the body. Then the person turns to listen to reason calling
him and awakening him to return to his source. But inasmuch as reason remains a stranger to bodily earthly living, it is doubtful whether it
can succeed in completing its task on its own. This is where organized
religion proves its educational worth, by imposing on the person the
duties of the limbs. Organized religion restrains sensuality, and thus it
prepares the person for intellectual awakening.
To be sure, this doctrine poses an opposition between body and soul
of which there is no inkling in Saadia. Nevertheless, Baya is responsive
to the Jewish tradition and makes a considerable effort to balance this
conception with that of the Torah. The life of the body and the senses is
not evil in itself, though it harbors the temptation to sin. It does indeed
put a person to the test, and Gods intention in this is double: rst, that
the person should bring to perfection as much as possible the bodily
existence that God created for its own good, and second that the soul
should obtain the benet of returning to its source not as a mercy but
through its own merit. Thus Baya indeed adopts and repeats Saadias
ideas. But the difference between them remains evident:
According to Saadia, man is fully a citizen of both worlds. According
to Baya, man is a stranger in this world. He is truly in exile here, for
this is not his proper place.
The following excerpt from Chapter 8 (The Gate of Taking Spiritual
Account) expresses these matters quite concretely:
The thirtieth point is that one should take account with his soul regarding
the conditions imposed upon him by his status as a stranger in the world.
He should regard his position as that of one who came to a foreign country
where he knew none of the inhabitants and none knew him. The king
of the country had compassion on him because of his being a foreigner,
and instructed him how to improve his condition there. . . .
Therefore, my brother, voluntarily assume the obligations of the status
of a stranger in this world, for you are in truth a stranger therein. The
proof that you are an alien, and isolated in it, is the fact that at the time
when you were coming into existence and when you were being formed in
your mothers womb, if all beings in the world had endeavored to hasten
your formation by a single moment or delay it by a moment . . . all these


chapter three
efforts could accomplish naught. So, too, after you entered this world, no
human being could provide for your maintenance without the help of
God, nor could anyone make your body larger or smaller. If you could
imagine that the whole world was yours alone, and had no other human
inhabitant, that fact would not increase the means of livelihood accorded
to you to the end of your days by as much as a mustard-seed. So too,
even if the human population were increased in manifold measure, the
maintenance decreed for you would not be diminished by as much as
a mustard-seed. It would be neither less nor more; nor can any human
being give you any advantage, nor cause you any loss. Nor has anyone
the power to prolong or shorten your life. And this applies to all your
qualities, natural dispositions and activities, good or bad.
Since this is so, what relationship is there between you and other
creatures? In what way are you near to them or they to you? You are
nothing else than a stranger in this world, to whom its inhabitants, however numerous, can bring no advantage and whom their small number
cannot injure. You are nothing but a lonely and solitary individual who
has none to associate with him but his lord, none to have compassion
upon him but his creator.2

The Way to Perfection

With this new sense of mans alienation and isolation in the life of this
world, Baya stakes out a new spiritual position. The soul must be lled
with longing to liberate itself from the fetters of this world and return
to its source. Its fundamental relation toward this world is negative. In
place of the activist disposition, we nd a stance of withdrawal, which
emphasizes the Thou shalt not aspect of the tradition. This is the
proper way for a person in this world; in this way one can arrive at
ones appointed perfection.
Baya arranged the rest of his book as a series of Gates describing
the stations on the way toward achieving the goal of a life of holiness
that returns ultimately to the source. This is a road that ascends continually from one stage to the next.
The Gate of Divine Service
This gate deals with afrming Gods unity and discerning His wisdom that is recognizable in all His works. From these as well as from
education and socialization, we come to know the general obligation

Hyamson translation (with modication) pp. 271275.

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


to serve God. In this gate Baya compares the service that is inspired
by the Torah with that inspired by reason. Torah-inspired service is a
preparatory stage, the beginning of enlightenment.
The basic dilemma is that the ordinary person who lives in the
world recognizes the obligation of serving God, but he does not stop
living a worldly life. Where does one draw the proper line between
the obligations of divine service and the compulsions and needs of
earthly existence?
The Torah answers this question in a supercial, legal way. It sets
a quantitative limit to each obligation. Whoever lives within the legal
system is free of problems, but this is an inferior way that leads readily to
a higher awareness. Fullling the mitzvot leads one to intellectual awakening. Then the question persists: How should one balance the need to
live in this world and respond to its demands on the one hand, against
the obligation to serve God, an obligation that is open-ended?
In this question we sense for the rst time the tension between the
demands of the body and the souls primordial inclination to attach
itself to God. We have here too the question, how to construe the
intrinsic relationship of the regimen of commandments to the life of
this world, one which Baya is interested in adjusting. One who asks
the question is taking the rst step forward. He becomes aware of his
obligation to himself and to his Creator as well. This is the theme of
the next gate, that deals with trust in God.
The Gate of Trust
In order for a person to serve God, he must be at peace with respect
to his place in the world. He must stand facing the world with an
attitude of inner tranquility. To achieve this, he must believe and trust
in God.
Trust comes before service. Therefore, the accomplishment of trust
must include everything that came before it: knowing that God is one
and is the cause of the worlds existence, knowing that God is all-powerful and wills the good, etc. These are conditions of trust in God.
But this certainty is liable to be disturbed by the suffering and distress
to which believers and observant Jews are also subject. In order to
have complete trust, one must answer the problem of the suffering of
the righteous and prosperity of the wicked. One must prove that God
governs His world fairly. To this purpose, one should rst examine the
question of human free choice: how much of our fate depends on our


chapter three

voluntary deeds, and how much is it dependent on circumstances over

which we have no control, which are the consequences of the laws
of nature that God established during Creation? Generally speaking,
Baya argues, we should recognize that our fate is determined by these
two factors taken together. God situates His creatures in circumstances
which He determined by His unsurpassed wisdom that is manifest in
nature, and He expects us to respond in such-and-such a way through
our choice. He offers the following example: There is water in a river,
but in order for us to get the water so that it can meet our needs, we
need to construct a water-drawing wheel. Setting up the wheel is up to
us, but we must act in the context of the physical laws that God has
determined. If there is no water to begin with, or if we try to obtain
water in disregard of the relevant physical laws, then our choices and
efforts are to no avail.
It follows from this, rst of all, that people have an obligation to
themselves, to survive, to satisfy their survival-needs, for this is their
Creators will, and for that purpose He provided them with means
and possibilities. But they are given in a certain way and within certain
limits, and we must obey them. This knowledge of the conditions of
survival that depend on the correct independent choice in accord with
circumstances beyond our control, is for R. Baya the precondition of
true trust.
This outlook claries the difference between body and soul from
another angle. Freedom of choice rests in the soul. From its standpoint,
the soul is free without any inner limitation. Boundaries, limits and
obstacles arise from the material world and from materiality. There
follows from this a very important consequence for the religious life:
We are absolutely free with respect to our inner spiritual lives. They
depend only on us, and that is the great advantage of the duties of the
heart, which we can fulll in every situation and thus merit the spiritual
reward that is the immediate consequence of their performance. In
other words: The power of faith itself leads us to trust in God even
if we live in circumstances of suffering and great spiritual distress,
especially from a physical standpoint. This is indeed the primary and
most important existential choice that confronts the soul, in which is
fullled the rabbinic dictum: Everything is in the hands of heaven
except the fear of heaven. By contrast, in the realm of ritual actions
that depend on bodily service, we are free only to a limited degree. And
in the realm of actions that we perform for our bodily survival, we are
in a state of complete confusion. We have an obligation for our physi-

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


cal survival, but to what extent ought we to strive for physical life and
its advancement? How shall we know what is incumbent on us in this
respect, and when we are exaggerating our care for physical survival
and gratication of our desires to the point of sin?
In Bayas view, all depends on the inner stance of the soul, as determined by its fundamental choice. Trusting in God means living in the
world on the basis of inner security, i.e. based on the knowledge that
the life of the soul is primary and that one should not devote to the
body any more effort than is absolutely necessary, so as not to deprive
the soul. This is an austerity that expresses the recognition that bodily
life has no independent value, and one should not regard it as a goal.
We note that Baya does not establish a denite norm. The halakhah
does not supply this norm either, for there are differences between
individuals and situations. Thus the determination depends on an inner
feeling and inclination. The one who trusts is involved in the life of
the world without seeing it as the purpose of life, but rather as a nite
obligation incumbent on him. This leads to the formulation of a key
guideline: The one who trusts directs his actions not for his egoistic
advantage, but in order to fulll His creators command and serve Him
in all His ways. This is the theme of the next gate.
The Gate of Unifying Ones Deeds 3
The unication of deeds is in the nature of a positive guideline for setting limits to the obligation of physical survival. The limits are set as a
result of our seeing care for physical survival as fullling Gods will and
directing our actions to that purpose alone. (In Bayas view, intention
determines the character of every action. The disposition of the soul
at the time of the deed is determinative. Thus the act itself could be
either good or bad accordingly.) This is a yardstick by which we can
gauge the boundary, for if fullling the obligation of physical survival
brings us to overriding other mitzvot that are incumbent on us at the
same moment, then we have transgressed the requisite boundary. This
assumes a harmony between all actions, which is achieved by delity
to one principle: fullling Gods will.

Hyamsons translation Wholehearted Devotion also correctly captures a true
nuance of the title Yiud ha-Maxasim.


chapter three

Every positive step implicitly carries with it a negation that raises us

up to the next level. The temptation lying in wait for the one who is
practicing the virtue of trust is that he should be seduced by the allure
of earthly enjoyments and be drawn to them for their own sake. When
one arrives at the level of unication of deeds for Gods sake, he has
mastered the lesson of trust, but the temptation at this stage is more
subtle and perhaps more dangerous, for it is more internal, and it is
harder for the soul to perceive it. We are referring to the temptation
of pride. The person who has managed to unify all his deeds for Gods
sake is liable to be proud of that fact. He takes credit for it, and he may
well feel satised with his achievement. But in doing so he falls again
into the trap of supercial earthly values: considering himself superior
to other people. Thus if he boasts of the level he has reached, he has
already slipped from it. In order to defend himself from the danger of
pride, he must ascend yet another level, described in the next gate.
The Gate of Humility
To defend oneself from the temptation of pride, a person should recognize and remind himself constantly that before God he is absolutely
worthless. This realization follows from everything the person has
learned in the previous stages: knowing Gods unity, discerning His
wisdom in the created world, the obligation of divine service, trust and
unication of deeds. The totality of these lessons brings one to humility
and realization of ones worthlessness before ones Creator.
Here too, as in the preceding spiritual states that Baya has discussed, an ambiguity appears. Only with respect to God does one
recognize ones worthlessness, but not with respect to other creatures.
Furthermore, he arrives at true humility only when he has previously
arrived at a correct estimate of the value of humanity in relation to
other creatures. Not only does Baya not recommend the deeds of
self-degradation that were practiced in the monastic asceticism of his
day, but he sees in pride and proper recognition of ones own worth an
inner precondition of humility before God. Before the Absolute One,
one is absolutely humble. This recognition explains how Baya is able
to nd in the negative virtue of humility a positive side. Humility is
not a stance of self-abnegation and self-deprecation. On the contrary,
when humility is genuine, it is in effect the internalization of a sense of

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


pride. Only then is the joy of achievement at having unied ones deeds
in the service of God transformed into a realization of positive inner
worth that does not measure itself in comparison with others and is not
self-satisfaction at the level one has achieved, but is the satisfaction in
the act of devotion itself. This is service of God at its most genuine.
Is there a criterion for distinguishing the pride of self-aggrandizement
from the pride of humility? We nd ourselves here on the verge of ne
distinctions that require the highest degree of self-awareness. When
pride leads one to feeling smug and self-satised with what one has
achieved, this is the wrong kind of pride; when the joy of achievement
drives him to carry on and devote himself to service without limitthis
is the sublimation of pride into a sense of humility.
The Gate of Repentance
We have seen that for Saadia repentance had only a secondary value.
Not so in the Duties of the Heart. The opposition between the souls original calling and its bodily inclination; the emphasis on internal intention;
the deviation from the middle-of-the road approach represented by the
clear, specic guidance of Torah and halakhahall these confront the
soul with a task in whose endeavor error and failure are inevitable.
Saadias assumption that a righteous life without sin is eminently possible cannot withstand the test of R. Bayas demanding standards. On
the contrary, it seems that moral failure requiring repentance becomes
for him a necessary condition for progress on the way to perfection,
for it is a way of experience that includes self-correction as a part of
that experience.
Moreover, we may say that the idea of repentance is a unifying
theme of the entire journey that leads to perfection. In the life of this
world, the soul strives with all its might to return from the realm of
limited, sin-laden existence to its source, and without grappling with
failure in the transition from each to the next, we cannot arrive at our
goal. For this reason the idea of repentance is fraught with a larger
signicance than the bare notion of an opportunity given a person to
correct what he has done wrong (as Saadia presents the matter). It is a
separate stage in its own right. At a certain stage a person becomes a
penitent: he grapples with a certain kind of experience and achieves
through it a certain kind of perfection. In this respect, the person who


chapter three

has sinned a particular sin and repented is privileged with a unique

experience that the person who has had neither that sin nor that specic
repentance is missing.
Baya distinguished between three kinds of repentance, in the last
of which it acquires an independent religious value:
1. Repentance from serious sins, whose punishment would be excision from the community. This penitent does not stand above
the innocent person, but on a lower level; his soul is stained and
he cannot achieve total repair.
2. Repentance from minor sins. The penitent can return to the same
level as the innocent person if he has repented completely, and
if he has achieved restitutionexternally to the extent possible,
and especially internally (in the case of sins between the person
and God).
3. Repentance from minor sins in a case where the penitent is
restored to a higher level than the innocent person. To such a
case the rabbis alluded when they said, The perfectly righteous
cannot stand in the place where the penitent stands. If the sin
brings the sinner to the state of true humility, and if through
it he recognizes the value of service to God as an open-ended
goali.e. if through the experience of the pain that he suffered
through his sin, he comes to the recognition of the innite distance
between humanity and God, as well as recognizing the innite
obligation that is incumbent on him, in which he will always be
found decient and at fault because he can never discharge it in
its entiretythen the sin has become a prerequisite to his perfection, for without it he would not have come to this realization.
Therefore Baya says that there is a sin that is more efcacious
than righteousness, for it leads to humility; and there is a righteousness more harmful than sin, for it leads to pride.
Only by putting the primary emphasis on inner intention is it possible
to arrive at this dialectical insight. In Saadias view, sin is unnecessary,
and so repentance in and of itself is not a virtue. But in Bayas view,
sin of the third kind is a kind of necessity, and so repentance that
derives from the inner struggle with this fact constitutes a religious
value of the highest order.

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


The Gate of Abstinence

R. Baya devoted a separate gate to abstinence, and thus distinguished it as a special level. Every station on the journey includes what
preceded it and brings what was said before to its ultimate fulllment
and self-recognition. The most profound self-recognition is the next
step toward perfection. The same applies in the case of abstinence.
We can say that everything that preceded is included under the rubric
of abstinence, but only by pushing it to the ultimate degree do we
come to understand its special meaning as a higher stage on the way
to perfection.
As in the matter of repentance, so also with abstinence Baya distinguished three degrees:
1. General abstinenceabstinence that follows from rational consideration of a practical, utilitarian sort, such as to avoid the
damage caused by excessive indulgence. All people agree to this
kind of abstinence in principle, only they might not recognize the
danger, or they may lack the will-power to restrain themselves
from indulging.
2. Abstinence according to the Torahthe Torah commands us to
abstain from certain things that would be rationally permitted,
in order to train one to control and purge ones appetites.
3. Abstinence for the select fewsome individuals take on a higher
level of abstinence, and forbid themselves even what the Torah
The tension between Bayas religious stance and the tendency of organized religion reappears here in full force. Baya is not satised with
the prescriptions of the Torah and halakhah, yet he understands and
appreciates that the way of the Torah is not only a concession to the
common peoples mediocrity, but it represents the maximum possible
discipline of abstinence that is compatible with civilized living. Only
rare individuals can take on a more extreme regimen, for if everyone
adopted it, life as we know it would fall apart.
This tension is palpable also in his discussion of the nature of supererogatory abstinence. Some people abstain from all enjoyments in life
because they despair of them. This way is not very praiseworthy, for
it conceals a secret love of those same worldly goods. Others abstain
out of love for God and separate themselves from human society. This
is a kind of abstinence for which Baya shows some respect. But the


chapter three

highest level is inner abstinence, which does not express itself in public
self-denial that others can observe. People of this third kind continue to
function and to fulll all their obligations to society and to their peers,
while privately they deny themselves worldly pleasures. In Bayas view,
this is the highest kind of abstinence.
This look that we have had of the highest kind of abstinence provides one of the rst sources of the motif of the hidden saint, whose
hiddenness is the key to his saintliness.
The Gate of Love of God
Abstinence is the condition to love of God, for according to Baya one
cannot come to this love directly. Why not? Let us return to our basic
assumption. Materiality seduces the soul from its original inclination. If
we intend to arrive at the level of love of God, which demands absolute
devotion, while skipping over all the previous levels, we run smack into
the obstacle of sensuality that has not been purged or brought under
control, and we fail. But if we follow the path of abstinence in gradual
stages, then love of God will also grow stronger in proportion until it
arrives at its fulllment in the measure that is possible for human beings.
It turns out that the way of abstinence from the world is also the way
to love of God. This dialectic also applies to the quality of love. In the
rst stage, a person loves God because he enjoyed the divine favor and
prospered in the world. This is the lowest level, because it is bound up
with love of earthly existence. There is no abstinence in this kind of
love, and it is what the rabbis called love that is bound up with an
object. The second level is love of God for His forgiving ones sins.
This is a higher level, for through it the person sees himself as indebted
to God. This is connected to fear of God, where fear is not dread
of punishment, but consciousness of Gods innite greatness. This is
the beginning of true love of God.
But the third and greatest level is the love that includes fear and goes
beyond it. This is love that comes from recognition of Gods greatness.
Such love, which is a sense of devotion without limit, includes all the
previous stages. It is the truest perfection.
R. Baya Ibn Pakudah expressed in his teaching a new intuition of reality, and he created a new religious ideal. He internalized the encounter

r. ba`ya ben joseph ibn pakudah


with the spiritual culture that Saadia confronted externally. His dialogue
with the traditional literature is expressed through the inner tension (on
which he deliberated) between individual religiosity and the demands of
organized religion. He tried to moderate this tension through enriching
the spiritual dimension of traditional organized religion. He carved
out a new path of religious individualism that goes beyond the letter
of the law, not by departing from the traditional framework, but by
mediating between its categorical demands and the specic religious
consciousness of the individual.



In Bayas thought, the confrontation between the new religious idealism and traditional halakhic, organized Judaism came to open expression. By contrast, in the original philosophic thought of R. Solomon
Ibn Gabirol, it appears that there is no tension between them, or no
interest in the conict. Ibn Gabirol was enamored of the new religious
ideal, and he presented and developed it without discussing the relation
between it and the tradition, even though in his genius-level poetic output it appears that he identied unqualiedly with the tradition, with its
canonic sources and legal norms. The principle topic that I shall seek
to consider in this chapter is the riddle pertaining to the consolidation
of Saadias rationalism in a generation that internalized Neo-Platonic
philosophy as a central factor that concretized the religious ideal of
faith and way of life.
Gabirols Philosophical Thought
R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol lived during the years 10261070 and became
famous among his people through his secular and religious poetry,
many of which were incorporated into the Jewish prayer book. His
philosophical thought had inuence on some Jewish philosophers and
kabbalists, though he is not mentioned by name. His principal philosophical inuence was on medieval Christian philosophy.
His philosophical works were:
1. The Fountain of Life (Fons Vitae). This is the most central and important work that has come down to us. It was written originally in
Arabic, but it was preserved only in Latin, and the true identity
of the author was only rediscovered in the 19th century.
2. The Will. By the testimony of the Fountain of Life, it appears that
he wrote a treatise on the will, but it is not extant.
3. Theory of the Soul. It is known that Ibn Gabirol wrote a work on
the theory of the soul, but it has not been preserved.

r. solomon ibn gabirol


4. Commentary. Ibn Gabirol wrote an extensive allegorical commentary on the Bible. Some fragments have survived.
5. Improvement of the Virtues of the Soul. This book has come down to
us, together with another book, Choice Pearls.
6. The Royal Crown. This is a long poem that may be included
among his philosophical works. It is his only surviving attempt
to present his theological ideas in the framework of a Jewish

The Fountain of Life

The Fountain of Life has practically no inuence in subsequent Jewish
philosophy. On the other hand, in the 12th and 13th centuries there
circulated among Christian scholars a Latin book, translated from the
Arabic, with the title Fons Vitae of Avicebron, whose author was thought
by the Christians to be a Christian or Moslem Arab, but not a Jew.
The book was the subject of debate; it was enthusiastically defended
by neo-Platonic thinkers (such as William of Auvergne and Duns Scotus), and was just as vehemently attacked by the Aristotelians (such as
Thomas Aquinas), while it continued to inuence the development of
Christian theology.
And then in the 19th century the scholar Solomon Munk discovered
a manuscript which was the translation of R. Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera
of excerpts from a book titled Meqor ayyim of R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol.
He was able to prove from these excerpts that the book that had had
such a brilliant career in the Christian Church was none other than a
Latin translation of Ibn Gabirols work. The most interesting feature
of this episode was not the shock that registered among the Christian
scholars (especially the anti-Semites among them), nor the special joy
that this discovery afforded to Jews, who are always looking for Jewish
inuence on the rest of the world. It is most instructive that on the one
hand, this book could be adopted into the Christian tradition without
raising any dogmatic scruples, and on the other hand it disappeared for
centuries from the map of Jewish thought. To be sure, the scholar David
Kaufman tried to prove that it had an inuence on Jewish philosophers
and kabbalists. But his evidences are few and his proofs are weak. I am
inclined to accept the verdict of Julius Guttman, who thought that the
inuence of this work in the Jewish world was negligible.


chapter four

The simplest explanation for the scanty inuence of this work on

Jewish philosophers is that it dealt with general philosophical problems
without relating to the problem of integrating them with canonical
Jewish sources. This is a surprisingly free approach. In the succeeding
generation, it was the project of integration that stood at the center
of attention for Jewish thinkers. But this answer is insufcient, and the
riddle continues to bother us.
R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was a great religious poet, and the character
of his poetry is very different from that of his philosophical writings.
His poetry is suffused with traditional allusions and bears the stamp
of the period of Jewish history in which it was composed. It found its
way into the prayer book and its subsequent inuence is considerable.
The difference between the character and fate of his poetry and his
philosophical writings begs for an explanation.
Gabirols Sources
The starting-point of Gabirols thought is to be found in the neoPlatonic tradition. However, it also has a marked individual character.
Scholars debate whether the individuating features are entirely original,
or whether he was inuenced from other sources that have not been discovered. Though his systematic consistency would argue for originality,
one senses an intellectual afnity with several pseudepigraphic writings
that circulated in the Middle Ages, especially the Theology of Aristotle
(which is a reworking of portions of Plotinuss Enneads) or writings that
were attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles.
The Structure of the Book
The book is constructed as a dialogue between a student and a teacher,
but it is not a genuine conversation but rather a lecture that is subdivided into sections by structural questions. The student raises a topic in
a tone of exaggerated humility seeking enlightenment, and the teacher
lectures to him, after which the student thanks him for his words and
raises another question, and so on.
Nevertheless, it seems that the literary structure has importance: it
reects the attitude of authority underlying the authors presentation of
his views. These are not private opinions offered for critical examination,
but rather the authoritative presentation of truth that is to be accepted
ex cathedra. One must admit that there are denite gaps between the

r. solomon ibn gabirol


certain tone of the presentation and the less-than-persuasive force of

the logical demonstrations. It seems that the author needed a liberal
dose of authoritative manner appealing to revelation to cover up the
weakness of his argument.
Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the importance of the religious
atmosphere generated by this kind of presentation, that can permit
itself this lofty vagueness. There is something dramatic in the impressive
revelation of truth that the student, though intelligent and knowledgeable, could not arrive at by himself, that resembles the practice of the
occultists, who claim a supra-human source of their doctrines. Perhaps
this also explains the freedom that the teacher exercised in not relying
on canonical sources. He expresses a divine truth that was revealed to
him directly.
The General Truth: The Human Being as Microcosm
R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol opens his work with an idea common to all
philosophers of the Middle Ages, whether of neo-Platonic or Aristotelian orientation: The human being is a rational animal, and his highest
purpose is knowledge of universal truth, which is eternal, for through
this knowledge he realizes himself. But Gabirol turns this idea in a
direction that characterizes neo-Platonism in particular. He afrms that
this knowledge of universal, eternal truth by the person is in fact selfknowledge. The human being is a microcosma miniature worldand
he reects in his own being the being of the whole universe, therefore
knowledge of all being is human self-knowledge. It stands to reason that
the substantive difference between the neo-Platonic tendency that leans
toward a subjective, mystical approach and the Aristotelian tendency
that leans toward objective science, is rooted in this assumption that
Aristotle did not accept.
How does this assumption inuence the content of metaphysical
Universal Knowledge
The aspiration to arrive at knowledge of universal truth as the content
of human self-knowledge does not tend toward a detailed knowledge
of the sciences, each requiring its own discipline. It also does not drive
one toward plumbing the inexhaustible diversity of reality surrounding us. This mode of thought lacks the curiosity that characterizes the
Aristotelian approach, that presses to know all knowable details and only


chapter four

afterwards offers a general explanation. We are also missing the drive

to show how the details form a totality. A philosopher of this sort is
not curious to know earthly existence in detail. His goal is to know the
unifying principlethe general rule from which it is possible to derive
all the details and thus to undercut our interest in the details. For it is
understood that the human being, inasmuch as he is a representative
being, encompasses the overall principle of being but not the details that
fall underneath it. This is an aspiration to ascend from the details to
the universal, to encompass being at a glance and see it as oneabove
and beyond the plurality of its parts. From a certain aspect this is the
aspiration of an artist or a believer but not of a scientist.
It is a tragic paradox that precisely in his attempt to grasp the absolute
unity of all being Gabirol becomes entangled in irreconcilable contradictions, because reality is lled with oppositions and polarities.
The aspiration to know the truth as the content of self-knowledge is not
only uninterested in the rich detail of surrounding reality, but it justies
inattentiveness to the reality external to humankind. In other words,
it mandates introspection in order to reveal the perspectival nature of
thought itself. The thinker strives to comprehend the substance of his
thought, to know his cognitive process, and thus to plumb the depths
of his own essence. He stands drunk with fear and wonder before the
bottomless well of his own inwardness, depths upon depths, until he
feels that he has grasped the root of his selfhood in what transcends
it, i.e. in God.
This is rst of all a religious position. But it is a religious position
very remote from that envisioned in Saadias thought. But since it is
religious it easily ignores the difference between itself and the truth in
the non-mystical canonical sources.
The Three Domains of Knowledge
Universal knowledge is humanitys purpose. In order to arrive at
universal knowledge, it is necessary to start with the broadest possible
perspective, i.e., to determine all the domains of inquiry. When we are
dealing with a detail or a portion of the whole, we keep track of our
place in the totality and do not lose sight of it.
Thus knowledge is divided into three domains:

r. solomon ibn gabirol


1. Form and matter all beings of the terrestrial world are

composed of form and matter, according to Plato and Aristotle.
As our rst familiarity is with this earthly existence, we should
consider these to principles that comprise it.
We have already noted the total abstraction that frees the philosopher in one sweeping omission from all the burden of inquiry
into the details of surrounding reality. Everything is immediately
placed into these two categories: matter and form. These two
categories reect consideration of the nature of our knowledge
of these entities, not how they are specically constituted. The
manner of thought that we are dealing with examines only the
tools by which it grasps reality, and therefore it strives to know
itself, not reality.
2. WillThe things that are composed of matter and form are
not self-caused. The cause for their existence is the (divine) will
that combines these two prijnciples, and therefore the will is the
second domain of knowledge.
3. The First SubstanceThe will belongs to the One who
willsthe First Substance, or the innite God. This is the third
domain, and of it we have no knowledge. When thought exhausts
what is given it to know, it discovers that it has a cause beyond
it, to which it points. Ibn Gabirol indicates a propos of the three
domains of knowledge that we should make a distinction between
direct knowledge, inferential knowledge, and what is beyond
human comprehension (i.e., what we know to be unknowable).
The Threefold Division Embraces All Knowledge
As we said, Ibn Gabirol assumes this encompassing framework as the
originating point of his analysis. He devotes many pages to an abundance of proofs which seek to prove that this threefold classication
encompasses all reality.
He was forced into this position by his belief that the number three is
the prototype of completeness, of dynamic plurality that reverts back to
union. Every effect has a cause, and the mediating force between cause
and effect completes the triad. Likewise, in every alteration of quality
and quantity, however slight, there is a transitional state between the
prior and subsequent state. Three is the principle of identity amidst
change. It is no surprise that the Christian philosophers assumed that


chapter four

any thinker who presented the triad as the model of completion was
himself a Christian, though logically there is no reason why a mystically-inclined Jewish thinker might not be drawn to the same idea.
The First Domain of Knowledge: Matter and Form
The Fountain of Life treats exhaustively of the rst domain of knowledge:
matter and form. It leaves the other domains to succeeding volumes.
We are able to distinguish the essence of each material object and
its existence. The essence corresponds to the denition of the object,
and the medievals spoke of the quiddity of a thing (from quid =
what)the answer to the question, what is this thing? But its existence in reality goes beyond our conceiving the idea of the object in
thought; existence does not follow logically from the mere concept but
is something in addition to it.
In Aristotles view, the form and matter do not exist separately, and the
distinction between them is merely theoretical. Matter always takes on
some form or other and is manifest through it; we know matter through
the form. On the other hand, the form is expressed through matter;
we know form through matter, by means of our senses. For example:
the table (as form) exists by means of the wood (matter); wood may be
thought of as the potential for a table to be actualized.
This Aristotelian theory raises many questions, such as what is the
essence of matter, what is the essence of form, and what is the relation
between the two of them. There is a richness of signicance and a dearth
of clarity that opened the door for many varied interpretations.
The Difference between Gabirol and Aristotle
At the start of his discussion Gabirol emphasizes the primary sense of
the concept of matter: that which exhibits form. Matter is what gives
existence to the form (or concept). By contrast, form identies and
delimits a portion of reality, and denes it as a separate entity. With
this point, we have not yet emphasized the fundamental difference
between Gabirol and Aristotle, but it becomes readily apparent when
Gabirol develops his thesis. Gabirol is not interested in the variety of
different forms and the variety of different materials. He is interested
in the principles of Form as such and Matter as such. Form is
the principle of existence in the broadest possible sense. It designates
all-encompassing possibility, the possibility of plurality, though it is itself

r. solomon ibn gabirol


one. Of course, since it is the principle of all existence, it is prior

to each existing thing. On the other hand, Form is the principle of
individuation and limitation. Each form is a separate entity complete
in itself and distinct from its surroundings. In this way it is the cause
of plurality beyond itself. Therefore, Gabirol argues, Form is active: it
denes, distinguishes, and separates things, whereas Matter is passive:
it bears and receives Form.
In such a way is generated a new ambiguity that causes problems
in Gabirols thought: in one respect it is possible to say that matter is
the cause of plurality, for it is innitely divisible, and without it there
could not be multiple forms. Form is the cause of unity, because each
form denotes a unied entity. But it is also possible to argue the oppositethat the form is the cause of plurality, because it effects a division
in matter, and that matter is the cause of unity, for without it there
would be no dened object. The same applies to the identity of things.
It is possible to argue that matter individuates each entity, because
without it there would be only one generalized form to speak of. On
the other hand, it is form that delimits it, therefore it is the source of
the identity of all objects. Similarly, it is possible to argue that matter
is the prime element of all reality, for without it there would be no
sense to the notion of the real. But form is also fundamental, because
without it there would be no denite real thing subsisting. It follows
that all these assertions have an equal measure of truth, yet they argue
in opposite directions!
We come here to a second central respect in which Gabirol differs
from Aristotle. In Aristotles view the domain in which we can speak
of a distinction of matter and form is the domain of material entitiesbodies in the proper sense. These bodies are necessarily comprised
of matter that can be perceived by the senses and from form that can
be apprehended by reason. Therefore intellect is not corporeal, and
therefore we can deduce that apart from material bodies there are
also purely intellectual entities without matter. Intellectincluding
human intellectis a unitary, spiritual, incorporeal entity, and all the
more so God and the angels that are intermediate between God and
This assertion is undeniably problematic. In Aristotles view, it is
hard to understand in what sense intellect exists if it has no material
substrate. But it is possible to explain on the basis of this assumption
why Aristotle arrived at the unequivocal conclusion that form is prior
to matter, and that the actual existence of form is prior to the potential


chapter four

readiness in matter to receive form. In Aristotles view, true reality is

the reality of intellectual form.
By contrast, in Gabirols view the distinction between matter and form
applies to all entities. With astonishing daring but complete consistency
he argues that it applies even to God! Why? Because for Gabirol matter
is the universal principle of existence; it is the universal substrate of all
forms, and there is no form without matter. Thus Gabirol fundamentally
revised the conception of the relationship between matter and form,
and thus he changed the conception of the notion between potentiality
and actuality. In Aristotles view, potentiality is possibility, a condition
between full being and total non-being, whereas actuality is real being.
In the neo-Platonic conception to which Gabirol subscribed, potentiality
is the condition in which all forms are united in the Innite but not
manifest to nite thought.
The actualization of forms separates them out from one another.
But this is not a condition of perfection but one of alienation. All the
forms that have become separated yearn to reunite with their Source,
because only there did they achieve truest realization. It follows that
potentiality is the highest perfection of being, and not actuality!
Gabirols neo-Platonic method seeks however to overcome the duality
of the Aristotelian conceptionthe duality of matter and form; the
duality of knower and known; the duality of actual and potentialit
strives to understand reality as a dynamic unity which from the terrestrial standpoint of human existence manifests unity and plurality, but
which from Gods standpoint is completely unitary. If so, the physical
world and the metaphysical world constitute a dynamic unity.
Gabirol attempted to express this outlook in a coherent philosophical
way, but he did not succeed in overcoming its contradictions. But his
philosophical failure points to a believers consciousness of a certain
truth, a truth that is in principle beyond the power of conception of
human reason, but for which reason nevertheless yearns.
Levels of the Hierarchy
What we have said so far lays the basis for a conception that describes
all reality as a pyramid-like hierarchy of beings deriving from the divine
unity and striving to become reunited with it: from the one to the
many, from the spiritual to the material, from the inconceivable to the
conceivable. The next step will be an attempt to outline the principal

r. solomon ibn gabirol


stages of the hieararchical scheme of existence and the transitions from

one level to the next within it.
The simplest way for us to distinguish between matter and form is
through their manifestation in an articial product. We take woodthe
matterand fashion it into a particular shapea table. The table is
now the form of the wood. The form delimited and individuated a
particular conguration from the myriad possibilities in the matter that
bears it. But the result is a form that cannot reproduce itself: a table
does not beget other tables in its image and likeness. This is thus the
end of the process of generationthe nal station.
We now consider the matter of the tablethe wood. When we
consider it we discern another conceptual formthe dened essence
wood. It thus turns out that what was viewed as matter in relation
to the table is a more primitive matter that has received the form of
wood. This is a natural form that grows, dies, and reproduces. What,
however, is it that bears the form wood? In Aristotles view, it is a
composite of the elements earth, water, air and re, and when we ask
what bears these forms, the answer is: the pure potentiality of matteras-such, what the philosophers call primal matter or hylic matter.
But in Gabirols view it follows from this that there must be a prior
source both for form and for matter. If there is a hierarchy of different
forms, then there must be a parallel hierarchy of different matters that
derive from the same sourcefrom God who creates the universe. He
deduced from this that there must be two types of matter that emanate
hierarchically from God, each of which carries the potential for matter
and form: (1) the matter that supports the heavenly spheres, which produce the primary elements (earth, water, air and re). These elements
are then given the form of corporeality, and thus is generated (2) the
corporeal matter that supports the forms of corporeal bodies. Thus
Gabirol succeeded in bridging the gap between spiritual matter and
corporeal matter, even though it is clear that the questionWhat is
spiritual matter? How does it differ from form, and what distinguishes
spiritual form from corporeal form?does not receive a logical solution but only a technical solution by a carefully-delineated progression
of stages mediating between corporeal and spiritual levels: the soul
is the matter (or substrate) that bears the form of corporeality (the
body). Above the soulwhose spiritual matter bears an intellectual
formis a chain of ten Intelligences that mediate between God and
the soul, and the principle of materiality (which in this respect is purely


chapter four

spiritual) is found in God Himself. Gabirol makes a distinction between

universal matter and universal form. Is it possible to understand
these ne distinctions conceptually, or is this perhaps only a verbal
scheme from which only the metaphysical imagination of a poet can
derive any reality?
In any case, in Gabirols view the combination of universal form
and universal matter generates the rst Intelligence, which provides the
matter for the form of the second Intelligence, and so on. Thus we can
reconstruct the chain of being from the upper to the lower levels. The
farther down we come, the more detail of composition we get, until we
arrive at the lowest, grossest level of material beingthe articial.
The Relation of Matter and Form
To understand this picture, we should add something else of the
relationship of matter and form. Matter is a static, passive principle,
whereas form is dynamic and active. Form is impressed on matter, and
it repeats this act of impression again and again, each time on matter
which has previously received the impression of other forms. Each
matter that already bears a form now becomes matter bearing a more
composite form, more corporeal, for otherwise it is hard to understand
how spiritual matter that has received a spiritual form becomes corporeal. At any rate, all of being is conceived as a complex interweaving
of two basic elementsuniversal matter and universal formuntil all
the forms that were potentially to be found in universal form, and all
the matters in universal matter, have been brought forth.
Gabirol offers in this context a parable that was later incorporated in
kabbalah. Let us picture in our imagination a ray of light that passes
through glass of many colors. The ray of light is one form, but it is
broken up into different colors. The glass vessels are the matter by
means of which the forms impressed on it change their colors. This is
a wonderful image, which reminds us of the convoluted drawings of
the modern artist Escher, and which demonstrates how imagination
can surpass conceptual reason in its richness.
Artistic BeautyPhilosophical Weakness
It is hard not to be moved by the artistic landscape of this view of the
world, combining multiplicity in unity. But philosophically it is very
problematic. At times form is offered as the source of unity, at times

r. solomon ibn gabirol


matter. At times form precedes matter, and at times the reverse. But
the most difcult problem is how to reconcile the extreme dualism
that ensues from a method that strives for absolute monism? How can
these two elements be forced to relate to each other? And how can we
identify them as proceeding from a single source?
In order to overcome this difculty, Gabirol would have had to assume
that even though matter and form are separate principles, they have a
primary relationship. Matter is drawn to form, because it actualizes it.
Form is drawn to matter, because it gives it existence. It is clear that
this conception introduces an irreparable internal contradiction into
the body of his method. The active becomes passive and the passive
becomes active, and the basic distinction between matter and form is
disturbed. And this still offers no answer to the question of their common source.
Theory of the Will
At this point we come to Gabirols second original theoryhis theory
of the will. It is the will that bridges the gap between matter and form.
It causes the force or the principle of action that passes through a chain
of entities until it completes its impulse in the last one. Thus it acts on
the matter through the form.
But what is this will? The book Fountain of Life was intended to deal
only with the relation of matter and form. Gabirol devoted a separate
book to the theory of will, but it was lost. In Fountain of Life there are
only a few fragmentary references to his theory of the will. Nevertheless, we can learn something of Gabirols ideas from them.
The will does not exist separately or act independently. Gabirol talks
of it as if it were a separate entity, but he also describes it as an aspect
of Gods essence: it embodies Gods turning from Himself to another
being outside Him. In a human being too, the will is the souls turning to another. Gabirol assumes a simple parallel between a human
will and the divine will: the will is an externalizing agent, revealing
the inner self.
In God, this is emanation. But what is revealed outside is less than
the essence that is expressed. There is a contraction and a diminution. Very likely Gabirol tried in this manner to explain the graduated
transition from the spiritual to the corporeal: the will that ows from
the innite divine essence and proceeds outward in a reduced form
becomes more and more constricted and more and more corporeal,


chapter four

it becomes transgured into tokens that express it, and thus it embodied
in the same manner as a thought is embodied in speech.
But it seems impossible not to see that in this way the same dualism
is projected beyond the domain of universal matter and universal form.
It is ascribed to the Godhead itself. Will becomes a further extension
of the principle of formForm above Form; the supernal Substance
(God) becomes a further extension of the principle of mattermateriality above materiality. This idea lends itself to visual imagery or poetic
expression, but not to logical solution.
Religious Signicance of the Will
Gabirols theory of the will seems to have had considerable inuence
on the Jewish kabbalah and Christian neo-Platonism. This manifested a
basic inner need of medieval religious philosophy, to renew the immediate connection between humanity and God. Neo-Platonic theology
makes reference to an innite divine principle that is so remote that
from the human standpoint it is experienced not as a presence but as
an absence. One knows intellectually that the divine Nothingness is the
absolute opposite of ordinary nothingness, such as the absence of a
physical object. It is an absolute reality, but only God Himself knows it.
How, then, can one establish a personal connection to the deus absconditus? How can one pray? How can one feel that ones prayer is heard?
The divine will, conceived as the hidden Gods turning to one outside Himself, seeks to restore to the neo-Platonic outlook the personal
dimension of traditional religion. God may indeed be hidden in His
essence, but He reveals Himself through the divine will as a personal
presence with intentionality and relationship, expressing benevolence. It
reveals that the divinity is not egocentric but essentially benecent. We
may not grasp it conceptually, but the divine benevolence is expressed
in the very existence of the world in which we nd ourselves. This is
indeed the connection between the theology of Fountain of Life and the
personal God to whom Gabirol turns in his liturgical poetry.
Ethics as a Means
In order to complete our examination of Gabirols philosophical views,
we should pay attention to several aspects of his ethics as he expressed
it in his short work, Improvement of the Virtues of the Soul.

r. solomon ibn gabirol


As is common in neo-Platonism, Gabirol (like Baya) did not ascribe

ultimate importance to ethics but saw it as a means for human communion (devekut) with God, a communion that could in his view be
achieved through knowledge of eternal truth. Ethics served to repair
the defect in ones corporeal nature.
However, the way in which Gabirol understood the task of ethics
is original and surprising, at least in the literary way it was presented.
Here, too, we can sense that architectonic perfection takes the place
of logical consistency.
Parallel between the Body and the Physical World
Gabirol proceeds here from the assumption that man is a microcosm:
his soul and intellect correspond to the spiritual world, and his body
corresponds to the physical world. His proper mode of existence is
the harmonious co-existence of all the elements that comprise him,
each on its proper level. So far, these words have a familiar ring, and
we would expect him at this point to enumerate the tendencies of the
soul that correspond to the various needs of the body, and to proclaim
the rule that we should exercise each of them in the proper measure.
But Gabirol prefers to develop further the model that demonstrates the
exact parallel between the human body and the elements of the physical
world, enabling him to give an exact specication of the good and bad
qualities corresponding to the sensory qualities of the elements earth,
water, air and re: human qualities such as irascibility or patience, sadness or joy, an enumeration that includes their metaphysical similarity
to cold or heat, moisture or dryness, lightness or heaviness, etc. Of
course, the proper ethical conduct is the harmonious combination of
all of these.

The Royal Crown

The Royal Crown is Gabirols greatest philosophical-poetic work.
Scholars of Spanish-Jewish poetry tend to assume that one can nd
in this supreme poetic creation elements of the ideas of the Fountain
of Life, and that acquaintance with the philosophical work is required
for a full understanding of the poem. Several attempts have been
made to explain the poem on this theoretical basis. Parallels have been


chapter four

demonstrated especially with respect to the conception of God in the

rst portion of the Royal Crown and the conception of creation
at the end of the second part. Gabirol speaks of how God is beyond
conception and beyond existence, and in classic neo-Platonic fashion
he puts the notion of Gods innite Oneness prior to the notion of
His existence, and sets Gods oneness on a higher level than any other
oneness known to us:
You are One, but not as one that is possessed or counted;
For multiplicity and change do not encompass You,
Nor description nor naming.
You are One, but my mind cannot set a rule or bound to You,
Therefore I say, I will beware of sinning through speech.

Nevertheless, the One that is above existence is the source from which
existence ows, and to which it returns in the mystery of emanation:
You are One, the First of every series and foundation of every building.

In this connection it is possible to see in the Royal Crown several

allusions to the theory of divine will as a dynamic aspect that relates
to God and is revealed in Him, the rst stage of emanation. Thus he
says in the opening verse:
Yours is the existence. All being came forth from the shadow of Your
As we say, Let us live in His shadow.

We saw how the designation of shadow refers to the manner of

emergence of nite being from innite being in R. Isaac Israeli. The
same idea is expressed in the Fountain of Life: Movement comes from
the Will, from its shadow and its beaming-forth. In other words, each
succeeding level is a reduction or shadow drawing on a higher essence.
Will is the light from whose shadow all existence derives.
The image of light is a classic neo-Platonic usage, and its appearance
here is characteristic:
You are Light, hidden in this world but revealed in the True World
In the mount where the Lord shall be seen
You are Light of the Worldand the light of reason longs for you and
For you shall see its border, but not all of it

In this short line is expressed the ideal of knowing eternal truth as the
end-goal of human existence, and its identication with the ideal of
serving God.

r. solomon ibn gabirol


We do nd elements of Gabirols theology in his poetic work, and we

can only discover them if we read the Royal Crown after studying
the Fountain of Life. Without familiarity with his theological thought, we
cannot fully understand the philosophical aspects of his poetry.
However, it is part of the beauty of his poetry that even without
dwelling on the philosophical interpretation, the poem is not without
meaning. On the contrary, it seems to me that we will not miss the
main point of his poem even if we are unaware of the parallel to the
Fountain of Life. Maybe the reverse is true: there is the danger that if
we become too much enmeshed in the philosophical interpretation,
we will miss the center of gravity of this work, which is rst of all the
expression of exalted religious feelings, in whose service the theological ideas are enlisted as metaphors. In other words, using theological
ideas as a means, the poet expresses a religious experience which may be
the groundwork for the philosophical interpretations that developed
Gabirols Poetic Side
It is easy to sense the change in religious atmosphere between Fountain of
Life and The Royal Crown. The rst signal is the use of language permeated with biblical allusions. In effect, The Royal Crown is a verbal
tapestry woven of transformed fragments of biblical verses, superladen
with successive layers of meaning without losing their original meaning.
Except for the rhyme, the structure of the poem is quite free, and in this
respect it is remarkably close to the style of biblical poetry (especially
Psalms), more so than most liturgical poetry of the Spanish Golden
Age (including Gabirols own religious poems). Of course we cannot
deny that even on the plane of ordinary religious experienceleaving
philosophical theology asidea major transformation has taken place
from biblical times to Gabirols age. Nevertheless, we see in his poetry
how the biblical element has become central, leaving a major impress
on the emotional tone and the ideational content.
Gabirol intends for his poem to awaken the sense of endless astonishment of a person standing before his God. He opens the stanzas that
describe the creation of the world in a way that will communicate this
endless wonder to his readers:
Who can recount Your powers?
Who can imagine Your greatness?
Who can recall Your delight?


chapter four


tell Your righteousness?

understand Your mysteries?
cognize Your greatness?
know your wonders?
express Your awesome acts?
converse of Your greatness?
intuit Your exalted works?

The multiplication of epithets is calculated to instill and impress on

the listeners soul feelings of exaltation beyond all superlatives. In other
words, there is an attempt here to express feelings beyond the power of
expression and to give this incapacity concrete representation. This is
a characteristic method of expression in the neo-Platonic philosophy.
This is the objective of the pattern of description that ascends from
wonder to wondereach wonder is incomprehensible in itself, but there
is always another greater in creation. The wonder of the world-soul
exceeds all else, and the wonder of the divine intellect surpasses even
this, so that ultimately the depiction of God standing above all thought
is yet another means to arouse the sense of wonder and exaltation, and
with it the submission of the person before Gods greatness.
The Personal (Biblical) View and the Supra-Personal (Neo-Platonic) View
But all of this is only one side of his poetry. Gabirol exploits the suprapersonal exaltation of the neo-Platonic Godhead in order to awaken
the feeling of endless astonishment. But he does not let go of the personal conception of God. On the contrary, perhaps the greatest power
of the poemconstructed line by line on paradoxical tensionlies
in the direct personal confrontation with the God who is beyond all
Wondrous are Your works, as my soul knows well.
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the beauty, the victory, and
the splendor.
Yours, O Lord, are the sovereignty, dominion over all, wealth and
To You do the creatures of heaven and earth give homage, for they will
perish while You stand rm.

We note the emphatic reiteration of the word You, which continues

through all stanzas of the poem. The opening and repeating refrain of
each stanza follows the same pattern: You, O Lord, You are One,
You exist, You are living, etc. From this direct personal address

r. solomon ibn gabirol


ows the theme of submission of the third portion of the poem, which
is suffused with the spirit of the Psalms: God who is incomparably
exaltedGod is close in His distance, benecent God, caring God,
commanding and enforcing God, but lenient and forgiving, who hears
In Gabirols poetry the personal-biblical element is enriched by the
neo-Platonic embellishment without being effaced. In this way the
neo-Platonic conception develops new layers of depth and signicance
within the traditional (biblical and midrashic) conception.
In Gabirols poetry we can even nd, in a direct and manifest fashion,
the traditional elements that disappeared without a trace in The Fountain
of Life: the idea of reward and punishment in the World to Come; the
idea of serving God through His commandments in the Torah; the
expectation of the return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Templeall
these are elements with which Gabirols religious poetry is replete:
May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that You turn back to me in Your
And turn me to You in complete repentance.
Prepare my heart for my supplication; lend Your ear,
Open my heart in Your Torah,
Plant the fear of You in my thoughts,
Enact good decrees for me,
And annul evil decrees from me.
Do not bring me into temptation and humiliation,
And save me from all evil afictions.
Shelter me in Your shade until the scourge shall pass.
Assist my utterances and my thoughts, and save me from misspeaking.
Keep me in mind when You keep Your promise to Your people and
rebuild Your Temple
To see the restoration of Your chosen ones. May I be privileged to visit
Your holy site
That is now desolate and in ruins. Have favor on its stones and earth
And the clods of its remains. May it be rebuilt from its desolation . . .

Thus are the traditional values reasserted in Gabirols poetry. This is

no longer the neo-Platonic God but the God of Psalms and the Jewish
Poetry as the More Faithful Expression of Ibn Gabirol
I think I shall be correct if I assert that Gabirols poetic work
expresses him more completely than his philosophical work. In his


chapter four

poetry we return from the foreign and alienated world of remote and
generalized religiosity to traditional religion and its particular Jewish
The fact that Ibn Gabirol wrote a book (The Fountain of Life) that
could be accepted as compatible with Christianity is no proof that
Judaism was peripheral for him, that he had come so much under
the spell of the universal culture of his age that his connection with
the Jewish world had been severed. On the contraryhis experiential
self was thoroughly rooted in the Jewish tradition. These traditional
values have not become an intellectual problem with which he must
wrestle with philosophical tools, but he relates to them naturally and
spontaneously. His Jewish-religious experience is central for him, and
his theoretical speculation is only the projection of that experience on
the universal plane.
One generation later, the situation had changed completely. The very
existence of the Jewish people and the justication of its identity had
become problematic, and then the issues that Gabirol had expressed
only in his poetry and not his theoretical thought took center stage in
systematic reection. The most prominent example of this development
was the theoretical work of R. Judah Halevi, with which we shall deal
extensively in a later chapter. The choice of Israel, the revelation of
Sinai, prophecy, exile and redemption are central themes of Halevis
philosophical thought.
We might say that there is an abyss of difference between Halevi
and Ibn Gabirol. As theoretical thinkers, they are as different as east
and west. But nothing has changed in substance. What Halevi says in
the Kuzari, Ibn Gabirol says in his poetic works. The difference is that
the traditional themes that were problematic in the generations before
Saadia became problematic again in Halevis generation, and so they
had to be discussed systematically.



The turn that raised the historical topics of Judaism for philosophical
elucidation is rst noticeable in the speculative writings of R. Abraham
bar iyya, who was called the Nasi. Our knowledge of him is scanty,
and much of it is in dispute. He seems to have been born in 1065 in
Spain, and it appears that he lived most of his life in Barcelona. There
is a debate as to whether afterwards he moved to southern France, for
he wrote several pieces for the communities of that region. He died
some time between 1136 and 1143. His title of Nasi came about
apparendly from an ofcial ofce that he received in the royal court
of Aragon. He was counted among the best-known men of learning
in his time, and his inuence was recognized afterwards in several
domains of general scientic literature. But his writings attest to a
erce identication with Judaism, permeated with severe criticism of
Christianity and Islam.
His Writings
R. Abraham bar iyya was rst of all a scientist. His principal writings
are in the areas of mathematics, astronomy and the calendar (and his
speculative writings are also very much inuenced by his involvement
with astronomy and astrology). In these areas he had much inuence
in the general eld.
His scientic writings were the following:
1. The Foundations of Understanding and Tower of Faith (an encyclopedic
work of which only fragments have survived)
2. The Shape of the Earth (published in 1546 and 1720)
3. Calculation of the Trajectories of the Stars (manuscript)
4 Astronomical Tables (manuscript)
5. The Book of Intercalation (published in London, 1851)
6. The Book of Surveying and Geometry (published in Berlin, 1912)
7. Meditation of the Soul (A. Freimann, Leipzig 1860)
8. The Scroll of the Revealer (A. Posnanski, Berlin 1924)
The last two works are germane to our inquiry.


chapter five

His Place in the History of Learning

In addition to his scientic and speculative works, R. Abraham bar
iyya engaged also in the translation of scientic works from Arabic
to Latin (in collaboration with a Christian translator). This fact is
important not only for lling in the knowledge about him personally,
but for understanding his place in the period of transition in the history
of science and philosophy in the Middle Ages from the Arab-Muslim
realm to the Spanish-French-Christian realm. His role as one of the
personalities who contributed to the transmission of the scientic legacy
that had had its formation in Islamic lands to the Christian world (and
we should emphasize that Jewish scientists and philosophers played a
central part in that transmission) lends a special signicance to the
content of his thought. We have here a scientist and philosopher of
outstanding importance in the history of general Western culture, who
defends his special Jewish identity in that context.
The Historical Background
The fact that he nds himself at the point of transition from the Moslem-Arabic world to the Christian-Latin world is palpable not only Bar
iyyas scientic writings but in his speculative writings as well. Whether
he actually moved physically from the Moslem-ruled to the Christianruled part of Spain or only traveled from the one realm to the other
in the cultural plane, the fact that Spain as a whole was in transition
from the one regime to the other is very noticeable in his writings. It
is expressed rst of all in the tension that subsisted between the Jewish
community and its Christian environment. The crisis of survival that the
Jewish community underwent in this period of the Crusades because
of the passing away of the rule of Ishmael before the onslaught of
Edom is the starting-point of his Scroll of the Revealer. It was clearly
recognized that the Christian regime posed a new and more serious
challenge to the continuance of Judaism as a separate faith, and this
is the central problem in R. Abraham bar iyyas thought.
There was another factor for the exacerbation of the tension in the
historical realm. General sciences such as mathematics and astronomy
posed no religious problem in the Jewish world. On the contrary, they
had ample legitimacy because they were useful ancillary tools for deliberations in one of the most important and central legal areasdetermining the Jewish calendar. Bar iyya made a great contribution in

r. abraham bar `iyya


this area, and this was a basis for the harmony of general and Jewish
learning that characterizes his writings. The contribution of basic sciences to pragmatic needs is another characteristic of the transitional
period, and it overshadows the inquiry into metaphysical and theological-philosophical areas. In any case, the major conict between
the religions moved in Bar iyyas time from the metaphysical to the
historical area.
The Philosophical BackgroundPlatonic or Aristotelian?
Some scholars (such as Isaac Husik and Julius Guttmann) associate
Bar iyya with the neo-Platonic school. Other scholars (Stitskin)
counter-argue that he was actually the rst of the Aristotelian Jewish
philosophers of the Middle Ages.
It is doubtful whether we can reach a clear-cut verdict between these
opinions. If Bar iyya had presented us with a complete philosophical
system, it would be possible to put him in one school or the other, but
he did not. He seems to have been an eclectic thinker who accepted
different elements from here or there and used them as premises or
starting-points for discussions on topics that are not clearly philosophical in character. Thus he denes form and matter in a manner closer
to the Aristotelian conception, while his description of the universe as
a hierarchy of realms bears a neo-Platonic impress.
The Relation of Torah and Philosophy
When we compare Bar iyya to Saadia, it appears that the status of
prophecy has undergone revision in his view as a result of neo-Platonic inuence. In Bar iyyas view, the prophet communicates from
the divine source not only the arbitrary commandments that a person
would not know from his own reasoning, and not only the complete
certainty in ordinary religious knowledge that revelation provides, but
also additional truths that are beyond the power of reason. Not only is
reason impotent to intuit these truths on its own, they are also above
the power of reason to criticize.
This argument shows us that the question of the identity of reason and Torah was presented with new challenges, but Bar iyyas
orthodox position is very clear. His position pregures that of Judah
Halevi, and the kinship between them is especially prominent in Bar
iyyas argument that the gentiles who follow the method of reason


chapter five

do not attain the same level of perfection that Jewish believers arrived
at through the guidance of the Torah.
In Saadias view, the advantage of Torah is the certainty that it
carries by virtue of being divine revelation, yet it is subject to rational
examination and criticism. In Bayas view, rational enlightenment is
preferable to that of Torah. But in Bar iyyas view, the reverse is
truethe enlightenment from Torah is preferable, because it is above
that of reason. Such a conclusion creates a new relationship between
prophecy and reason. To be sure, Bar iyya made use of the ndings
of gentile thinkers, and he was familiar with the external source of the
philosophical terminology that he employed. But he felt no need to
prove the assertions of the Torah through reason (as Saadia had done),
but rather to plumb the deeper implications of the Torah through the
tools of reason. In his view, it is the purpose of reason to decipher
the mysteries of Torah insofar as it is within human power to attain
knowledge of the divine. Beyond this, the Torah enables the believer
to catch a glimpse of the vistas of worlds that are hidden from the eye
of reason. In contrast to Baya, Bar iyya argues it is not reason that
delivers us from the world of perishable things, but only the Torah.
Negating the Religions of the Gentiles and the Gentiles Themselves
The note of apologetic disputation is already prominent in Bar iyyas
remarks about the superiority of Torah, because the wisdom of Torah
is unique to Israel and implies their superiority over other nations.
The idea of Israels chosenness contains two elementsnegative and
The negative element in his thought is the rejection of the gentile
religions. Bar iyya expressed open enmity against Islam and Christianity. He differed with Saadia, who in his view gave Islam too much
credit, and his attack on Christianity is sharper and more vehement
than Saadias. He did not arrive at any general theoretical formulation, and his arguments are dogmatic and emotional. Thus he argued
that according to his astrological calculations, the periods of Jesus and
Mohammed were periods of great decline for the world, and that in
time to come all the gentiles will be wiped away and the world will be
lled with the resurrected Israelites of all generations. Such an extreme
position was clearly an expression of the hostility and spirit of confrontation that were unleashed in the wake of the Crusades.

r. abraham bar `iyya


Israels Special Status

The afrmative side in Bar iyyas notion of chosenness was the idea
of Israels special status. In his view, the choice of Israel rests on the
absolute uniqueness of the Sinaitic revelation. In this respect he was
close in thought both to Saadia and Halevi: All the peoples of the
earth were in awe of Israel, as is signied [in Deuteronomy 28:10 by
the similarity of the words]: And all the peoples of the earth shall see
[ve-rau] that the Lords name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand
in fear of you [ve-yaru mimekka]. This is a reference to the revelation of
Sinai, that was visible to the whole world. The public character of the
Sinai revelation gives it the highest level of certainty, in contrast to the
revelations of all other religions. But there also appears in his thought
the idea that Israel has a substantive superiority to other nations: Just
as God separated the human race from all other animals and gave
them a higher status, so too did He separate one nation from all the
others, so that they should be dedicated to His glory. He thus comes
close to Halevis position, as we shall see later on. There is, however, a
philosophical difference between them, for Bar iyya bases the superiority of Israel on a neo-Platonic historical difference that is different
in principle from Halevis position.
According to the neo-Platonic doctrine of the soul, a human being
has three levels of soul: the vegetative (or vital) soul (that governs the
functions common to all life, whether plant or animal), the animal
soul, and the pure soul that is unique to humans. According to Bar
iyya, the rst human beings were created with the human soul ruling
over the other two, but because of their sin it fell in status and came
under the control of the vital and animal souls. The Flood atoned for the
sin, and the pure human soul was released from bondage to the vegetative soul and started circulating among the bodies of selected individuals, and (from Jacob onward) an entire family. At Sinai the damage of
the sin was repaired in its entirety, and two things happened: the pure
soul was redeemed also from the bondage to the animal soul, and it
started being embodied in an entire nation. All the other nations were
not released from the animal soul, and they are to Israel as the husk
is to the kernel.1 Therefore they are not called man in the proper
Husk = Kelipah, a term that would have great signicance in the kabbalistic
literature as referring to the realm of unredeemed matter or the demonic.


chapter five

sense, and they will perish in the end of time.2 This is Israels substantive superiority to the other nations of the world.
When we discuss Halevis thought we will show how differently he
developed this motif. It is worth dwelling on the fact that Bar iyyas
version builds on the notion of original sin in a way that its Augustinian-Christian origin is rather obvious. This is instructive, for it reminds
us that Bar iyyas hostility to Christianity was born of the friction
of close proximity, and in such cases imitative inuence can be the
byproduct of competition. In Halevis thought, this motif is absent.
His Conception of History
Bar iyyas notion of the basis of Israels chosenness was the starting point of his view of the historical process. Saadia accepted the
biblical and rabbinic outlook concerning the transition from exile to
Messianic times without any additions or revisions, and he saw no
logical principles at work in history other than simple providence as
the Bible describes it. But Bar iyya, who saw the status of Jewry in
exile as a religious problem, was forced to grapple with the historical
reality of the crisis, and he utilized his philosophical tools in order to
present an all-encompassing outlook of the law of historical process.
To this purpose is directed the principal part of his work in the book
Scroll of the Revealer in which he sought to predict the time of the future
In Bar iyyas view, one should look for the allusion to the end of
days in Genesis rather than in the prophetic books. He assumed that
there is a connection between the creation and the redemption. The
redemption is the completion of creation, and history is the process in
which everything that is given in creation moves from potentiality to
actualization. This is the fundamental idea of Bar iyyas historiosophy.
To explain his assumption he used the Aristotelian notions of form and
matter, but he took them out of their original context. In his view, God
presented the whole future that would be revealed in human history
implicitly in the work of creation, just as the plant is found entirely in
the seed, so that humanity should arrive at perfection in gradual stages.
To be sure, in Aristotles view all the worlds creatures proceed from

The wholesale destruction of the gentiles is a deviation from the standard Jewish
view that the righteous of the gentiles have a portion in the World to Come. (LL)

r. abraham bar `iyya


potentiality to actuality, but this is a cyclical process that repeats itself

and does not advance humanity beyond a delimited, nite horizon.
Cultures also develop and decline, and later cultures do not achieve any
greater perfection than the earlier ones. But Bar iyya did not share
Aristotles view. In his view, the time required for full actualization is
the whole sweep of human history. There is no cyclicality, but the line
of development that ascends toward complete perfection is stretched
to the end of daysall events of history must nd their place and be
interpreted within this scheme.
This conception leads to the conclusion that history develops in accord
with the logic of its own proper principle. If Aristotle consigned history to the realm of the accidental, Bar iyya believes in an absolute
determinism. The course of history is determined in advance. This
outlook was of course inuenced by Bar iyyas interest in astronomy
and astrology. The layout of the heavenly bodies determines the order
of the times, and it is possible to read in them the fate of humanity,
whether of peoples or individuals, from the beginning to the end of
time. We have two tools for predicting the future: the book of Genesis
on the one hand, and the conguration of the heavenly bodies on the
One may see in these theories a rst draft of Halevis historical outlook. Halevi also depicted a general process operating from the beginning to the end of time, but without historical determinism, without
astrology, and with a substantially different view of the mission of Israel
in the human context.
As we said, in Bar iyyas theory astronomy and astrology occupy
a central place. He had recourse to them to prove that Christianity
and Islam arrived during periods of decline, and that the suffering of
exile and the ascendancy of the gentiles over the Jews were decreed in
advance. Most of all, he thought that it was possible to deduce from
astronomical laws how far each period was from the future end of
days. On this basis he proved conclusively that the crises of his day
t the description of the birth-pangs of the Messiah, and that the
redemption would come very soon.
In all the respects that we have discussed, we can see here the inchoate
beginnings of a historical way of thinking. The historical situation of
the Jewish people and its religious fate became the subject of theological


chapter five

thought. Consequently there emerged a historical-philosophical dimension in religious thought, and the historical elements that were unique
to Judaism became a central topic. But the most important thinker who
developed the historical model on a theoretical level that was inuential
for generations was R. Judah Halevi.



Rabbi Judah Halevi was born about 1075 in Tudela in Christian Spain.
He received his Jewish and scientic education in the centers of Jewish
and philosophical learning of Arab Spain. He was a physician. It is
clear from his work The Kuzari that he was well-versed in philosophy.
After his studies he returned to Christian Spain. In 1140 he set out
for his famous journey to Israel. He arrived in Egypt and spent some
time there in preparation for the nal stage of his journey. We have
ample information from the documents of the Cairo Genizah about the
period that he was in Egypt, about his preparations and his departure
by sea to Israel, apparently to Acre. According to an epistolary poem
that was recently discovered in the Cairo Genizah, we may surmise
that he arrived in Jerusalem in order to pray facing the site of the
Temple, and it seems that he died there, though the circumstances of
his death remain obscure.
The Relation of His Philosophical and Poetic Writings
R. Judah Halevi is known as one of the greatest Jewish poets. His
poems were published widely and were included in the liturgy. His sole
philosophical work, The Kuzari (or to give its full original title: A Book
of Proof and Argument on Behalf of a Despised Religion) was secondary in
its inuence to his poetry, although it was one of the most inuential
philosophical works that shaped the conception of Judaism not only in
the Middle Ages but also in modern times, to our own day.
The connection between the religious-experiential world of his poetry
and that of his philosophy is obvious and pronounced, both as to the
traditional Jewish themes developed in them and their expression of his
personal religious experience. This experience was purposely laid out
as the starting-point of his discursive work, and served as the basis of
his consistent struggle against philosophy, turning its own conceptual
tools against it.


chapter six
The Kuzari

Halevi worked on his book for nearly twenty years. According to one of
his letters, he began to write it as a response to the query by a Karaite
thinker that was referred to him. As the argument against Karaism
is focused in the third part of the Kuzari, and as this portion has an
independent structure, we may assume that it was written rst, and that
later it was incorporated in the general structure of the book.
As we said, Halevi was born and lived most of his adult life in
Christian Spain but was educated in Moslem Spain. The clash of the
two worlds that were ghting a holy war against each other (speaking
of the reconquistathe reconquest of Moslem Spain by the Christians
with the force of a crusade) is important background for understanding
Halevis theoretical work. We may say what we have said of R. Abraham
bar iyya: he had issues to settle not only with Christianity alone or
with Islam alone, but with the two religions together, arising from the
experience of the bitter fate of the Jewish people, which was crushed
between these two world powers.
In the Kuzari, there is sensitivity to the fact that the religious disputation is not only theological and dogmatic, but it is translated into the
language of political and military confrontation. Supremacy and power
have become a decisive argument in the controversy of the faiths, for
victory in the battleeld was considered a victory for the religion of
the victorious army, a proof that God was on their side.
In this context it is clear that a special sensitivity was raised concerning the situation of the Jewish people, situated between the two
warring camps, persecuted by both, despised and humiliated by them,
and unable to respond in the language of force. The historical question of the meaning of Exile became a vexing theological question.
The experience of exile was sharpened not only by the persecutions
themselves, but also by their religious implications.
This situation stands at the basis of the Kuzari. At rst the Khazar
king does not want to speak to a Jewish sage, because Judaism is so
low in status. He relies on the testimonies of the Christian and Moslem
faiths, which have divided the world between them and are at war with
each other. He listens rst to the Christian and the Moslem, until he is
forced by the logic of the discussion to invite a Jewish sage. The Khazar
king represents a typical stance toward Judaism which was doubtless a
serious problem for the Jews themselves.

r. judah halevi


Halevis response is based on the situation of the Jewish religion in

his generation. He argued from the double standard that Christianity
and Islam adopted to the Jewish sacred writings. On the one hand,
they persecuted its current practitioners. In Halevis view, the Jewish
peoples perseverance in the face of this trial attests to the superiority
of their faith. Indeed, whoever studies the sources of Christianity and
Islam in depth will nd that their own saints valued perseverance in
their holy faith, not territorial conquest. And now in that very generation, all the people of Israel withstood a similar trial and thus bore
witness to the truth of their faith.
Similarly, Halevi countered the challenge of the wars of Christianity
and Islam for the conquest of Jerusalem through the Jewish peoples
own initiative to return to the land of Israel in order to be redeemed
in it. His pioneering migration to Israel was a call to his whole people,
and he referred to it explicitly at the end of his book.
The Internal Confrontation
In addition to his struggle against Christianity and Islam, Halevi fought
on two other fronts: against Karaism and against philosophy.
At the start of his book Halevi calls the Karaites sectarians (minim).
In Halevis late years, the Karaite community in Christian Spain was
suppressed by the governments as a consequence of the intervention
of the rabbinic Jewish leadership. But before that, there was a strong
Karaite community, and there were many disputations between them
and the rabbanite Jews.
As we said, Halevi began to write his book as a response to a Karaite sage, and he devoted the entire third portion of the book to this
debate. We may say that he was ghting on an internal front as well as
the external. In truth, despite his unequivocal rejection of the Karaite
position in his book, his relation to the Karaites was not one of total
rejection. He adopted some of the Karaites arguments, and he was
close to them on the issues of the land of Israel and mourning for Zion,
for the Karaites were more zealously committed to the return to Zion
and mourning the destruction than the rabbinic Jews of his time.
The Confrontation with Philosophy
On the fourth front, Halevi contended with philosophy, or more precisely with Aristotelianism. We should stress that Halevi appreciated the


chapter six

merits of Aristotelianism as the most convincing philosophic method,

in contrast to the Arabic Kalam and the neo-Platonic philosophers. In
this respect the confrontation was bound up with his agreement with a
part of the philosophical argument, as we shall see later.
Halevi is the rst Jewish thinker who contended with the dangers
that philosophy presented for the religious life, based on his thorough
acquaintance with Aristotelian philosophy. He was the rst to testify
that the Aristotelian movement had already penetrated deeply and was
inuencing the community of Jews with a general education.
Halevi felt that Aristotelian metaphysics presented an intellectual
alternative to revealed religion. It posed a threat to belief in a personal God, in prophecy conceived as transmitting the word of God to
humanity, in revealed Torah, and in the absolutely binding character
of its commandments. Nevertheless, he recognized the achievements of
Aristotelianism, especially in the sciences, and he recognized in effect
that there were areas in which its path was the way to the truth. What
is more, he developed his own views, in his fashion, on the basis of
principles that he appropriated critically from Aristotelian philosophy.
The Polemical Motive in the Kuzari
The need to confront these four antagonists of Judaism is declared
explicitly in the introduction to the Kuzari:
People asked me what arguments and refutations I have to present against
those who differ from us among the philosophers, the [other] Scriptural
faiths, and the sectarians who disagree with the mass of Jews. . . .

The philosophers are the Aristotelians; the other Scriptural faiths are the
Christians and Moslems; and the sectarians are the Karaites.
The fruit of this fourfold disputation must necessarily be a book that
is polemical and apologetic. The title of the book testies to this, for it
is directed on behalf of the despised religionin other words, as an
apologia. Indeed, one ought not to treat the Kuzari as a philosophical
work. It was not intended as such, and it does not regard the status of
a philosophical work as a virtue to boast of.
Nevertheless, it is proper to discuss this work in the context of the
history of Jewish philosophy no less than the works of Saadia, Baya,
Ibn Gabirol, and Bar iyya, maybe even more so. The disputation
against the four opponents is not carried out separately, but is integrated in the statement of a single standpoint against all the avenues

r. judah halevi


of attack on rabbinic Judaism. As a result of this systematic integration, the emphasis is placed on the construction and justication of
the Jewish conception and not on external polemical considerations.
The religious debate is framed in the terms of the philosophic debate.
Aristotelianism is set in the focal point of the discussion, out of the
assumption that rejection of the Aristotelian position on the basis of
the Jewish religious outlook is the basis for all the other lines of argument. The debate with the Aristotelian position is framed on the basis
of intimate knowledge of it, using premises that were taken from it.
In other words, in his refutation of the philosophical position, Halevi
proceeds as a philosopher.
Halevis Sources
The result of this composite literary structure is a body of thought
that is clearly unique and quite original. Some see in Halevi the most
profound thinker who lived in the Middle Ages. It is impossible to
count him in any of the general schools that stood at the focus of
religious thought in this periodthe Kalam, the neo-Platonists, or the
Aristotelianseven though Halevi came in contact with all of them
and learned from all of them. He sought to base himself directly on
the testimony of the Torah and to voice its own outlook in matters of
history, social values, and religious observance fully and directly.

Structure of Dialogue in the Kuzari

Understanding the literary structure of the book is a precondition for
understanding its contents, for it follows directly from the process of
his thought.
The book is structured as a dialogue between the Khazar king and the
Jewish aver.1 It is based on the historical narrative of the conversion
of the Khazars as it was recounted in the famous correspondence that
took place between R. Samuel the Prince and the king of the Khazars in his time. But we should note that Halevi made use only of the
fact the king of the Khazars, who was originally an idolator, adopted
the Jewish religion as the result of a conversation with a Jewish sage,

aver: the term denotes a fellow of a Talmudical academy, or scholar-rabbi.


chapter six

and made it the religion of his kingdom. All the rest of the details of
the frame-narrative are the deliberate literary artice of Halevi, and
important for understanding his purpose.
According to the frame-narrative, the Khazar king had a prophetic
dream that recurred night after night. In his dream an angel appeared
to him and said, Your intention is pleasing, but your deeds are not
pleasing. The king nally realized that he was being required to change
his religion to one of the religions that were to be found around him,
and it was up to him to choose which was the true religion that the
angel intended. For that purpose he conversed rst with a philosopher,
then with a Christian sage and a Moslem sage, and nally with a Jewish
sage who is called the aver (scholar-rabbi), who successfully persuaded
him to accept his religion.
The king then switched in his role from searcher to student and asked
various questions that pertain to the Torah and the fate of the Jewish
people. The scholar-rabbi responded to these questions, but we should
note that the Khazar king did not turn into a submissive student. He
remained a king with an independent, critical mind. A true dialogue
ensues, and the question is whether there is a methodical structure in
the transition between one subject and the next and in the manner of
the deliberation.
Given that Halevi began the composition of his work as an answer
to the question of a Karaite, it follows that Part 3, which is the focus
of the debate with Karaism, was the rst part that he wrote. Afterwards he wrote the four other parts and combined what was written
rst in the place that seemed most appropriate to him. Nevertheless,
Part 3 has an independent dialogue structure, and the seam binding
it is articial, for it repeats what was said earlier in the present edited
format; one also detects a digression from the general progression
of the discussion. Also from a literary standpoint there appear to be
signs of late stitching. At the end of Part 2 and Part 3, for example,
Halevi is forced to draw a connection between the order of topics,
which he does not need to do in the transition between Parts 1 and 2,
or between Parts 4 and 5.
Examples from Part 3
Part 3 is worth examining, because it sheds light on Halevis method in
the other parts, and especially on his relationship to Platonic dialogue,
which inuenced the medieval writers of philosophical dialogue gener-

r. judah halevi


ally. Plato used this literary form with a denite artistic goal. His dialogues typically include a dramatic sub-plot, and in order to understand
the authors intention one must interpret the words of the characters
with reference to their role in the story. Medieval philosophical dialogue
generally loses this literary plasticity (as we showed by example with
reference to Gabirols Fountain of Life). An authoritarian teacher-student
relationship takes the place of true dialogue. We cannot say that Halevi
avoids this tendency entirely. The scholar speaks from an authoritative
position, as one learned in Torah, and as a Jew for whom the Torah
was given. But as we saw, the scholar needed to prove his authority
to the king throughout the rst half of the rst part, and in the following parts the dialogical relationship is preserved, for the king is an
independent student who has his own expectations and prior positions
stemming from his previous spiritual journey. Even when he is sure that
the scholar will nd an answer to his questions, he presses him on issues
that truly bother him, and he is not satised as long as his doubts are
not fully resolved. Moreover, the scholar-rabbi, who has become the
kings teacher, is not inclined to give frontal lectures like the teacher of
the Fountain of Life. He has an ironic attitude to his student, in a positive
way. Sometimes he will say something to provoke him to a question
or to a certain reaction, and sometimes he avoids a direct answer in
order to suggest a condition to a forthcoming response. Sometimes he
sets up a test for his student to determine how ready he is for a more
forthright revelation. These quirks of the student and of the teacher
bring life to the dialogue throughout the work, so that Halevi comes
close to the spirit of his Platonic prototype.
Part 3 is of interest from the perspective of a particular famous
Platonic dialogue. The king asks in what way one should serve God
according to the Torah. The question is clearly addressed to the controversy with the Karaites, who dissented from the oral Torah and
its prescribed way of worship. In opposition to the oral Torah, the
Karaites proposed direct rational understanding of the Biblical text.
Halevi wished to prepare the groundwork for this discussion, but he
approached it from a very remote avenue.
In his rst answer to the kings question, the rabbi gave a negative
answer. He rst criticized the ascetic methods of the Christian monks
and the Moslem Sufis, which were generally regarded as shining
examples of devoted worship of God. Jews do not practice such things,
and the king might think from this that the Christians and Moslems
surpass the Jews in their devotion, while the rabbi would appear close


chapter six

to the philosophic outlook in its advocacy of the golden mean and its
rejection of asceticism. The rabbi was then at pains to explain the difference between the habits of the Jewish pietists of Temple times and
current diaspora practice. He did so in order to explain incidents in the
Bible that appeared like extreme asceticism, such as Mosess seclusion
in Mount Sinai for forty days and nights without food and water, or
the prophet Elijahs ascetic fasts. Halevi maintained that this was not
ascetic monasticism but rather a high degree of spirituality. We are
speaking of individuals whose spirit was detached from their bodies,
so they did not suffer at all from their fasts, for they transcended their
bodily needs. But it was only possible to achieve such an exalted state
by way of a special connection between God and His people, which
ceased with the destruction of the Temple. It was not possible in exile.
In order to corroborate these reports, which might seem sensational
and incredible to the Khazar, Halevi cited the conduct of the students
of Socrates. They also secluded themselves in the company of their
students in order to arrive at a spiritual state, not for abstinences sake.
Now the king ventures to ask about the worship of the pious individual
at the present time, and instead of answering directly, the rabbi cleverly
asks the king what is the correct conduct for a ruler towards his realm.
As a king he should know this, but clearly in the rabbis view the rule
of a righteous king over his realm should be a proper example of the
correct service toward the King of the world: the pious person should
be strictly in control over all his souls faculties, in order to be devoted to
his creator and perform His commandments. This presents an instructive parallel to the opening of Platos Republic, but the argument is in
the reverse order. Plato considered an individuals control over the souls
faculties as paradigmatic of the proper way to rule the state, whereas
the rabbi wants to draw the lesson from the governance of the state
to control of oneself. At any rate, it is clear that he uses the Platonic
dialogue deliberately in order to go beyond it. The political order for
him is a condition for the order above it. Indeed, on this point the king
senses the trap that has been set for him, and he replies, I did not ask
about the ruler, but about the pious man. In other words, the question is about religious conduct. Of course the rabbi has expected this
question, for by it the student has come to understand an important
principle; one cannot simply equate the realm of political law or the
realm of ethical conduct with the realm of religious conduct. These
are separate domains. To be sure, ethical perfection is a prerequisite of
religious perfection, but religious perfection is a separate realm, and it

r. judah halevi


must be considered in its own terms. The political and ethical realm are
considered through reason, but the religious realm is based on revelation, which is beyond reason, though not in contradiction to it.
This dialogue assumed Platos argument as its true starting-point, in
order to surpass and transcend it, and this claries how the opening is
connected with the Karaite debate. The Karaites argued that one can
consider the Torah on a purely rational plane. Halevi sets the realm of
worship outside of discussion based on rational principles. The principles here are taken on authority. In order to bring his student to this
realization, the rabbi engages in a preparatory discussion, and once the
principle has been claried, one can move on to discuss the details.
The General Structure of the Book
The central thread of the book is the confrontation between the philosophical position, as ideally embodied in the Aristotelian system, and the
religious-Torahitic position, represented ideally by the Torah itself.
Halevis main exposition develops two motifs in parallel. On the one
hand, he subjects Aristotelian philosophy to critical examination, and
on the other hand he develops his original conception of prophecy.
These two motifs progress side by side and shed light on each other.
The more he lls out his conception of prophecy, the more he advances
his argument against the Aristotelian position. If we examine the structure of the book with this in mind, we can identify a connected line of
argument proceeding through parts 1, 2, 4, and 5 (skipping over Part 3
that was spliced in the middle).
The Progression of Argument in the Book
The lines of argument are laid out in Part 1 by the prophetic dream
and the philosophers speech: thesis and antithesis. As we shall see
later, the philosophers contentions are not refuted but circumvented.
Halevi demonstrates the propriety of this procedure, but as a result all
the discussions between the religious sages and the king are conducted
in the shadow of the intellectual doubt that the philosopher has cast
on revelation.
After the king has accepted Judaism on the basis of the certainty of
the historical experience of the Sinai event (which is the foundational
revelation on which all the monotheistic faiths rely), he asks the questions that arise from the troubling contradictions between the Torahitic


chapter six

and philosophical positions. Thus in Part 2 he asks about the divine

attributes, but the rabbi shrinks from it and responds briey with the
argument that this is a topic of secondary importance, in order to
transition from this discussion to a discussion of the conditions for the
existence of prophecy according to the Torah, for whatever we know
about God comes from prophecy, not from philosophical analysis.
In Part 4 there arises the question of the divine names and the
anthropomorphic images in the prophetic descriptions of God. This
is a continuation of the discussion of the question, what we can know
about God. The king asks the philosophers questions, for this is what
is familiar to him, while the rabbi responds on the basis of prophecy
and explains the difference between it and philosophy, for in his view
only from prophecy can we know the truth about God, who gave it.
Only after a thorough grounding of the theory of revelation is the
rabbi prepared to confront the philosophical argument directly, in
order to prove that this argument is not relevant as applied to the true
religion, and this is the central thrust of Part 5.
Thus Halevi passes from the historical grounding of the truth of
the Sinaitic revelation to the conditions of prophecy, and from the
conditions of prophecy to the substance of prophecy. In similar fashion, he passes from circumvention of the Aristotelian position in Part
1 to contradiction of its theological premises in Part 5. In this way he
describes a principled and systematic thought-process, despite apparent
digressions to side issues, although the systematic presentation is not
one of philosophy, but of religious thought based on revelation as an
experienced fact.
The Frame Narrative: Why the Khazars?
We turn to a detailed examination of the structure of Part 1, in
which the direction of the dialogue is set, along with the basis of its
Why did Halevi choose the conversion-story of the Khazarite king as
his point of departure? We note rst of all that this is not an attempt
of the author to project the responsibility of his words onto a higher
authority. The rabbi is an obvious literary device, and Halevi accepts
full responsibility for every word that purportedly comes from his lips.
He does not try to conceal the fact that this is a literary ction. The
intent is apologetic from the outset. Halevi wanted to exploit the fact
that a powerful king, together with his people, accepted the Jewish

r. judah halevi


religion. He was not interested in demonstrating the physical strength

of the Jewish people, but he wanted to show that despite Judaisms
lowly status and the prejudice stemming from that fact, it prevailed.
The conceit of the gentiles attests to their weakness, in contrast to the
suffering (i.e., the weakness) of the Jews, who bear holy witness unto
death to Gods truth. Thus one accords proper credit to the proper
status of the Christians and Moslems.
By means of the frame narrative Halevi wished to determine the
topical framework of the debate. He did not want philosophy to be
the privileged judge over religions, for in that way it would arrogate to
itself a higher status than religion. But philosophy was itself on trial.
Who, then, could be the objective judge? Halevis brilliant solution
was to nd a man who was not a philosopher, but who also had no
prior leaning toward any of the competing religions, an objective and
discerning individual who nevertheless had a deep personal interest in
the matter. Clearly, Halevi thus dened precisely the qualities that he
sought in his readers.
The Ideal Student and Teacher
We now ask about the kings character: What are the qualities required
of the ideal reader in order to judge Halevis arguments fairly?
The Khazar is a righteous king. He rules his realm justly, and he
also controls his passions. He is a pure-hearted man, well-intentioned
and possessed of common sense. (He is not a professional philosopher!)
He is also a person of deep religious sensitivity. These, then, are the
qualities Halevi looks for in his ideal reader.
And what are the qualities of the scholar-rabbiin other words,
the author?
The rabbi is a sage of the Torah who also has a superior philosophical education and wide knowledge of other religions. He also
has the qualities of an ideal teacherhe is patient; he can anticipate
his students reactions, for he is familiar with the stages of reasoning
that he must go through to judge correctly. He elicits reactions and
sets up situations that require deep, complex consideration in order to
answer his questions. He exhibits another trait of the Socratic teacher,
serving as midwife to his student to bring forth the truth, showing the
student that he has already known the truth but was unaware of it for
whatever reason.


chapter six

We must add another quality of the ideal reader: he does not enter
into consideration of matters of faith without prior preparation. As
opposed to the philosophical starting-point which is the curiosity to
know, Halevi poses as his starting-point a man who has had a prophetic
dream. We readily see that the dream takes the place that revealed
tradition plays in the origin of the historical religions. A true dream is
after all a certain rung in the ladder of prophecy.2
Thus the consideration of religion begins not with a skeptical and
curious intellectual attitude, but with direct religious experience. Still,
we should remember that the religious experience of the Khazar king
is entirely personal. Nobody else can share it, and so it is impossible
through it to persuade anyone else but the dreamer, who alone has the
basis to trust that he has dreamed a true dream.

Foundations of Religion
The dream establishes the starting-point of inquiry. It provides an
indication of the basic assumptions of religion as it is simply accepted
(and for Halevi, simple faith is the best kind!).
In the dream we nd the following three assumptions:
1. The foundation of religion is experience (the dream).
2. Religious experience is self-validating (the dream recurs several
3. The content of religion is expressed in deeds (Your intention is
acceptable, but your deeds are unacceptable).
Equipped with these three assumptions, the king sets forth to investigate
what is the religion to which the angel refers. He clearly represents
the books readersJews educated in the tradition (= dream), whose
simple faith has been disturbed by the disputes with Christianity and
Islam and by the philosophers arguments, so that they need theoretical
reinforcement for it.
From this starting-point, the kings actions and words follow naturally
as a drama of errors that ow from his situation: in other words, the
typical errors of an educated Jew of his generation, to whom Halevi
directs his book, uncovering his errors in order to correct them.

See Maimonides, Guide II, 45, degrees 26.

r. judah halevi


The Kings First Mistake: Inviting the Philosopher and His Speech
The rst mistake is turning to the philosopher. This is the original
sin of Halevis generation. Even though the educated Jew may be
a dreamer, and the dream (i.e., religion) directs him to seek the true
deeds, he nevertheless gives credence to the philosopher, who is adept
neither in deeds nor in religious experience, as if the keys to the truth
lie in his hands.
The Khazar king knows that the philosopher lacks the secret of true
action. The formulation of his question attests to this, for he asks the
philosopher only about his belief (in contrast to his approach to the
Christian and the Moslem, whom he asks concerning their beliefs and
practice). We may well ask: if the angel directed the king to inquire
about correct religious practice, why did he turn to the philosopher,
who belittles ritual, and frame his inquiry in terms of correct knowledge
(corresponding to intention)? We may entertain two hypotheses. Firstly,
he is required to leave behind his own tradition, and so he cannot rely
on its beliefs in choosing a new, unfamiliar religion. It is thus natural
that he will want to hear the view of an objective philosopher who
operates out of universal considerations. Secondly, there is the high
prestige in which philosophers are held on account of their knowledge and wisdom. When a lay person listens to them, he is convinced
that they know the truth. It is only natural that the king will want to
appraise what he had heard in his dream by the yardstick of experts
in universal truth. This consideration reects Halevis own experience
(and many of his contemporaries). In his youth he was attracted to
the philosophers and learned their doctrines in order to appraise the
truth of his own religion, and only after a process of learning and
maturation did he take a critical position. This is represented in the
person of the rabbi.
What did the king hear from the philosopher? The philosophers
speech at the opening of the Kuzari is a precise and accurate summary
of the Aristotelian outlook on religious matters as it was expressed in
the writings of the Arab commentator Al-Farabi. But Halevi arranges
the philosophers arguments so that they form an antithesis to the
assumptions proceeding from the kings dream. The philosopher
knows that there is an eternal God who is the cause of the world, but
he rejects the notion of voluntary creation for a specied purpose.
The world proceeds necessarily from Gods essence, which is that of
an intellect that knows itself and is concerned only with itself. Therefore God does not know the particulars of existence outside Himself.


chapter six

He has no desire, for desire is a function of a creature who lacks external

things and is dependent on them, whereas God is perfect and self-sufcient. In that case, it is clear that God does not issue commands, or
exercise providence, or issue reward and punishment, or listen to prayer.
In other words, we have here a systematic denial of the image of a
personal God shared by all historical religions; all the rest follows from
this. God creates only in a metaphysical sense, for He is the cause
of existence. Prophecy is not the speech of God to humanity, but the
human ascent to intellectual perfection. Thisand not the service of
Godis the goal and perfection of humanity. Immortality of the soul
is immortality of the acquired intellect, in other words, a persons
achieving knowledge of eternal truths; an intellect that attains to such
truths becomes immortal.
One may see in this philosophy an attempt to overcome the personal
and particular character of human existence, rooted in our bodily
nature. This is a transient existence, in contrast to the eternal aspect of
humanity that one nds in universal reason. In that case, what matter
the precepts of religion? In the philosophers view, they have only a
political value. They unify the people and train them in obedience, and
thus they aid the conduct of the state. They are useful in this regard and
thus worthy of preservation. But all religions are equal in this regard;
the philosopher advises the Khazar king to choose the religion that will
seem most advantageous from political considerations.
The Basis of Halevis Method: The Opposition between Philosophy
and Religion
When the philosopher arrives at this point, the opposition between his
position and the dream has been laid bare. The philosophers position
contradicts the assumption that there is a religious (ritual) practice that
is true in itself. His views on prophecy contradict the truth of the kings
dream, which he regarded as prophetic, as well as the very assumption of divine revelation to human beings as an expression of Gods
interest in humanity. Through his logical arguments, the philosopher
has contradicted the basic assertions that are at the basis of religion
in general.
In the philosophers speech, Halevi has thus demarcated the polar
positions between which the intellectuals of his generation vacillated.

r. judah halevi


He set forth in perfect clarity the fundamental opposition between the

religious position, which was the basis of social education and the political structure of medieval Europe, and the philosophical enlightenment.
In contrast to the philosophical party, who were interested in obscuring
the difference, if only for political reasons, Halevi wanted to highlight
it, especially on those points where reconciliation seemed possible. The
philosophers also afrmed God and prophecy in their way, and they
spoke of the obligation of religious precepts. But Halevi wished to lay
bare the fact that the God of the philosophers was not the God of
the believers, that the philosophical notion of prophecy fell short of
revelation, and that the purpose of the precepts in the philosophers
view was not religious. Precisely where they appeared similar, their
absolute difference was exposed. Halevi relied on it.
The Kings First Response
How does the king respond to this challenge? He is understandably
thrown into confusion, for he has a solid basis for thinking that both
the dream and the philosopher speak the truth. The dream is true
because it has recurred repeatedly as a wholly tangible fact, and a
rational person does not deny empirical certainty even if its causes
are unknown to him. The philosophers words are true, for they are
logical and consistent and without any contradictions; his arguments
force themselves on the intellect. Therefore the Khazar king says to the
philosopher, Your words are convincing, but they do not respond to
my question. They are convincing, because they appear logical and the
king cannot contradict them. But they do not respond to the question,
because the question derives from the angels words in the dream, and
the king is sure that he saw an angel and heard his words.
It is possible to understand this antithetical opposition between the
dream and philosophy as if we have two comprehensive truths presented
to us, each well grounded, but with no reconciliation possible between
them. This is how it appears from the kings vantage point, but we
should emphasize that that is not how Halevi saw it.
In his view, the philosophers views are not at all convincing. They
only give the impression of truth. Halevi thus shows that the intellectuals of the generation give philosophy too much credit. Because its
accomplishments in physical science are so impressive, people think that


chapter six

its metaphysical and theological claims are equally demonstrative. But

whoever examines their arguments more closely knows that they are
full of contradictions, doubtful claims, and even absurdities.
All this will become clearer in Part 5. The king cannot know this
yet because he is not expert in philosophy. He is also unable to communicate to another his condence in the truth of his dream, because
only he saw the dream, and therefore it possesses certainty only for him.
The philosopher denies that this dream is revelatory. He considers it
the fruit of the kings nave imagination, and the king cannot convince
him otherwise. The king thus lacks two attributes for standing up to
the philosopher that the scholar-rabbi possesses: he lacks the necessary
philosophical erudition, and he has no knowledge of religious experience that has universal validity.
The Point of the Confrontation: The Validity of Belief in Revelation
What is the way out? The king can circumvent the philosophers words
and give them no consideration, and to explain why he is entitled to do
so. We thus arrive at Halevis primary intention in creating this dramatic
situation at the opening of his book: he is dening the crossroads which
the member of his generation must confront. Most people are unable
to deal with the philosophers speech, and they are entitled to decide
that the philosophical discussion has no weight for them one way or
the other. In other words, they must decide on the basis of the intrinsic
validity of the religious experience itself. They will not arrive at this
through accepting the philosophers argument or through contradicting
it. The religious experience is to be accepted a priori. This is a prior
experience and decision, and that is the course that the king takes after
his rst mistake. He hesitantly returns to the right path, but he makes
a few more false turns, though with lesser consequences.
The Arguments that the King Raises against the Philosopher
1. The philosophers arguments contradict what he heard in his
2. According to the Christians and the Moslems, who ght each
other over the correctness of their mode of action, there is a
correct mode of action. The Christians and Moslems comprise
the majority, whereas the philosopher is in a minority.
3. Prophecy, as described in Scripture, is given not to philosophers,
but to those persons whom God has chosen.

r. judah halevi


All these arguments have a basis of truth, but they lack demonstrative
force, and the philosopher need not accept them. The evidence of
Christianity and Islam is correct insofar as he regards experience as a
criterion of truth, but the king uses this in a way that Halevi cannot
accept. The king will use the consensus of the majority as a reason to
forgo consulting a Jew. Halevi would be able to identify with the philosophers ironical response: The Christians and Moslems are ghting
with and slaughtering each other, so how can they both be right?
The last argument concerning the prophets is correct, of course, but
in order to convince the philosopher of it one would have to validate
historical prophecy and explain it from the religious perspective. Until
this is done, the philosopher could argue: Whoever is not a philosopher,
is not a prophet. But the king is not able to provide comprehensive
historical evidence or a substantive religious explanation, for he was
not educated in a revealed religious tradition.
Therefore the result of their encounter is that the two part without
inuencing each other. The philosopher is sure of his own position (and
rightly, for he has heard nothing that should change his position), and
the king is sure of his (and rightly, for from his personal standpoint he
cannot deny the truth of his dream).
Thus the primary decision has been made in the direction of religious
experience. The king has passed his rst test and corrected his rst
mistake. But only after he recognizes the true religion will he be able to
take issue with the philosophers views of religion and refute them.
In addition to the primary importance of the decision between
religious experience and rational argument, Halevi has succeeded in
using the polar confrontation between the philosophical and religious
positions in order to suggest rational criteria by which it will be possible
to decide which of the competing religions is the true one, but without
making the philosopher the judge. How? We pay attention to the lesson
that the king derived from his encounter with the philosopher. Had he
not had a prophetic experience that was valid from his point of view,
he would have had to agree with the philosopher that all religions are
based on illusion and error. Revelation is at best error borne of naivet.
Nevertheless, his experience was private, and so he could not convince
the philosopher. This means that only a religion that is based on revelatory experience that can be proven in the manner that one proves
scientic experience publicly and not just for a single scientist can one
withstand the doubt that philosophy raises against it. It follows that
when he stands and listens to the presentations of the various religious


chapter six

sages, he will have to confront them with this philosophical argument

and to observe if they are able to counter it in a way that will convince
him. This is a huge polemical achievement. Halevi was able to use a
philosophical argument to refute Christianity and Islam, without having
to adopt philosophy as a basis of the Jewish religion.
The Kings Second Mistake
The kings rst mistake was to invite the philosopher even though the
dream pointed him to the sages of the religions. The kings second
mistake was that he preferred to turn rst to a Christian sage and then
to a Moslem sage. He should rst have turned to the Jewish religion,
if only because it preceded the other two historically. (After all, it was
for this reason that he invited the Christian before the Moslem.) Moreover, both these religions claimed to be the legitimate heirs of Judaism.
Nevertheless, the king thought that he could skip the Jewish religion
because its adherents are few and it is lowly and despised. Therefore
he turned to the strong reigning religions.
This is an error in judgment that one may see as typical for a king
who is asking about a religion with political needs in mind. Halevi saw
it, however, as a typical and natural error for his contemporaries, that
he wanted to address at the beginning just as he needed to address
the Jewish intellectuals admiration of philosophers. Still, this error
was less grave than the previous. The king turns now to the religions
which have a teaching about correct practice, and this is in keeping
with what was said to the king in his dream. This is recognizable also
in the formulation of his questionfor now he has asked about both
belief and practice.
The speeches of the Christian and the Muslim are carefully thought
out. In a certain respect they argue the opposite of the philosophers
position, presenting religion as revealed in all its aspects. But they are
also similar to the philosophers in method. They start out with beliefs
that they present as universally valid: God is presented as the Creator
who governs all humanity, not as the particular God of Christians or
Moslems. The full implications of this procedure are revealed after we
read the words of the rabbi, who starts in a totally different way, as
we shall observe later. The speeches of the religious sages each consist
of two parts. One part is compatible with Judaism. The other part is
opposed both to Judaism and to philosophy, though Judaism is hardly
identical to philosophy. Thus there is established an opening position
for confronting the two rival historical faiths.

r. judah halevi


The Christian and Moslem Positions

Halevi presents the theology of Christianity and Islam with admirable
brevity, just as he had presented the philosophical position, in a systematic, compact and correct fashion. He represents these faiths accurately
but ignores the divergent streams that comprise them and focuses on
their basic common elements. Though he is portraying dogmatic faiths
that he regards as mistaken, there is no trace of irony in his words,
but he tries to present their doctrines just as a believing Christian and
Moslem would present them. This is no game, but a faithful expression
of his outlook. Rationalist criticism of Christianity in particular can
present it in a mocking fashion. Jewish polemicists were in the habit of
doing this. But Halevi was well aware that the same method could easily
be employed against Judaism. All religions have non-rational elements,
for that is their nature. If he were to mock the rival faiths, he would
himself be falling into the trap of philosophical rationalism.
As we said, we can divide each speech into two parts. The rst part
includes the fundamental assumptions of religion in general and the
historical premises that each religion has in common with Judaism (for
they were adopted from it): the creation of the world, God as creator,
Biblical history, and the revelation of God to Israel. To be sure, there
are dogmatic differences between the Christian and Moslem sage in
the rst part of their speeches as well. The Christian does not mention the unity and incorporeality of God, but only His eternity and
role as Creator. The Moslem emphasizes Gods unity and the denial
of Gods corporeality. This difference is not accidental, but is rooted in
the essential difference between the two faiths. But it is characteristic
that Halevi does not remark on this difference between Christianity on
the one hand and Judaism and Islam on the other in the rst part of
his speech. Although he does not have the Christian mention divine
unity and incorporeality, he refrains from portraying Christianity as
problematic in these respects. Thus in the rst part of their speeches
the Christians and Moslems views appear compatible with the Jewish
outlook. This fact emphasizes the intention of Halevis literary structure. He sought rst to establish the common elements of the faiths,
so that he could point to the dependence of the two later faiths on
their Jewish source.
In the second part Halevi emphasizes these two faiths points of
departure from Judaism. Here he has the Christian remark on the divine
incarnation in the person of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the
crucixion, and the claim that Christianity supersedes Judaism and that


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Christians are the true Israel in spirit. In the Moslems speech Halevi
emphasized the belief in the divine revelation of the Koran, whose
divine character is self-evident; the belief that the Koran supersedes
the previous scriptures; and the belief in bodily reward and punishment in the world to come. Thus the second parts of the Christian
and Moslem speeches depart from the historical basis of Judaism, in
which is focused Halevis dispute with them.
Thus the kings mistake is uncovered: he skipped the Jewish religion
because of its lowly position in the present, but from the words of the
religious sages to whom he turned it becomes clear that were it not for
Judaism, there would be no Christianity or Islam. This is the dramatic
paradox to which Halevi builds. It becomes clear that the despised
religion is honored even by those who disparage it. Its tenets, which
seemed superuous, are the root, the foundation. We will encounter this
kind of dramatization repeatedly throughout the book. This is Halevis
classic apologetic tactic.

The Demand for Historical Certainty

In parallel to his reaction to the philosophers words, the king does
not contradict the words of the sages of the two religions, but he cannot accept them either. He remains in doubt. But the parallel to his
response to the philosophers words reects a different situation. The
philosophers convincing words tend to undermine the principal tenets
voiced by the religious sages. This is especially obvious in the case of
the Christian sage, so that the Khazar king says, Reason contradicts
these things. In the case of the Moslem he is especially sensitive to
the premise that God has converse with human beings. What he had
heard from the philosopher renders this possibility unlikely, and therefore he cannot receive the religious sages claims. But he cannot refute
them either, because given the opposition between his dream and the
philosophers arguments, and his preference for the truth revealed in the
dream despite the philosophers criticism, he cannot dismiss the religious
sages claims entirely. Therefore he says, This is no place for reason.
In place of rational explanation, he demands from the sages religious
certainty that is rooted in experience, and his chief complaint against
them is that they have not provided this certainty. How can he believe
in the truth of a religious history replete with strange matters in which
he was not raised, whose sources are a closed book to him?

r. judah halevi


The purpose of Halevis narrative structure is thus claried. It is to

enable the king to deduce for himself that whatever the Christian and
Moslem say, other than their verication of the Mosaic Torah, lacks the
certainty of universal historical experience. The Khazar king considers
that both Christianity and Islam are historically based on Judaism. They
continue in its path and rely on it. If he wishes to examine the validity
of their claims in their own right, he must examine their historical basis,
which is the Jewish religion. Therefore he suspends his discussion with
them without either accepting or rejecting them. He must investigate
further, and this investigation inevitably leads him to the religion that
he originally sought to omit.
The Opposition between Philosophy and Religion
By means of his well-thought-out literary structure Halevi succeeded in
avoiding having to set up the philosopher as the nal arbiter of the truthvalue of the religions. Reason cannot determine which religion is true,
for the philosophers reason contradicts all the historical religions.
Nevertheless, Halevi succeeded in making purposive use of the philosophical method in his debate among the religions and to exploit it to
his needs. Philosophy casts doubt and demands the verication that is
to be found in experience. In Halevis view, neither Christianity nor
Islam can offer experiential verication in and of themselves, for both
rely on the religion of Israel. Whoever wishes to investigate them must
investigate the Israelite religion rst, in order to verify them.
Clearly, even if we succeed in verifying the divine revelation to Israel,
we can only provide a basis for what Christianity and Islam have in
common with Judaism, i.e. only the rst portion in the speeches of the
religious sages. In the point at which they depart from the Jewish tradition, historical verication is denied them, and they remain suspended in
a doubtful status. Only the Jewish religion veries itself through its own
history. Only it offers a certain alternative to philosophical reason.3

It is noteworthy that in the 18th century in his book Jerusalem Moses Mendelssohn would juxtapose truths of reason and historical truths as the two important
dimensions of teaching in religious doctrine. In Mendelssohns view, all religions were
basically united in teaching the truths of reason (God, freedom, immortality, and basic
ethics), while they differed in the historical truths that were unique to each tradition
(the Sinai revelation, the Incarnation and Resurrection, the prophecy of Mohammed,
etc.). In Mendelssohns view (unlike Halevis), there was no way of rationally establishing the universal validity or preference of one religions historical truth over another;


chapter six

Attack on the Authenticity of Christianity and Islam

There follows from here an important difference that pertains to the
relationship between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity and
Islam on the other. In Halevis view, these are not entirely false religions.
They have a portion of truth, but they have added to that truth some
mistaken elements that mar it. However, it is especially important that
in his criticism of the untrue elements in these religions, he does not
impugn their religious sincerity. The believers in Christianity and Islam
direct their thoughts in a pure spirit to the true Creator God, Who
reveals and exercises providence, not to the God of the philosophers.
His essential criticism is directed at their ritual practices, which differ
from the Jewish religion because they are not the command of God.
The books on which that ritual is basedthe New Testament and the
Koranare not the divine word. More precisely, in Halevis view they
cannot be demonstrated by experience to be the word of God.
Thus Halevis argument is that Christianity and Islam are a counterfeit addition to the true Jewish religion. Originally there was a partial
similarity between Christianity and Judaism (and it was possible then
to describe the Christians as gentiles who had accepted the basic ethical commandments). But afterwards, in the course of appealing to the
masses, it absorbed elements of idolatrous worship so that the source
became entirely falsied. Since it is Halevis fundamental assumption
that the essential criterion of true religion is not correct intention
but correct action, it follows that this basic error, which consists in a
departure from the correct ritual and religious way of life, must result
in ultimate sin. One can only arrive at religious perfection through
the right deeds.
Nevertheless, Halevi envisions the possibility that these religions
may become puried of their adulterations and return to their perfect
sourceJudaism. To give substance to this idea he offers the parable
of the seed (Israel) that originally appeared to be rotting in the earth,
but in time to come it will succeed in sprouting and producing trees
like itself. (We should point out that the source of this parable is in
the New Testament!)

they thus had to agree to disagree. Mendelssohns philosophy would lay the basis for
the liberal pluralism characterizing modern Western societies such as France, England,
and the United States. (LL)

r. judah halevi


Deviant Sects in Judaism

In the same wayand in a train of association that is instructive
Halevi deals with all the sects that split off from Judaism. Jeroboam the
son of Nebat was one of the rst to lead Israel astray, and though he
deviated somewhat from correct ritual practice, nevertheless in Halevis
view he was faithful to the Mosaic Torah in its essentials. This can be
said even more truly of the Karaites, who departed from the Oral
Torah tradition, which was also given at Sinai. The emphasis is on
the authenticity of practice, to which only prophetic authority, veried
historically, can attest. In Halevis view, such verication can be found
only in the Jewish religion.
Thus we return to the basic antithesis with which we started: On the
one hand, religious experience that is self-verifying; on the other hand,
philosophical teaching that is veried through reason. But in place of
the prophetic dream, we must put revelation, which has the force of
generalized experience.
Verication of the Sinaitic Revelation
How is the Jewish religion veried by historical experience that is universally valid?
We shall attempt to answer this question by looking at the continuation of the drama. We saw that the king was forced to correct his
second error after his conversations with the Christian and the Moslem.
He had to investigate the truth of Judaism, if only to weigh the claims
of Christianity and Islam. It would turn out that the religion that was
originally despised would turn out to be the most important. But this
conclusion is not arrived at directly either. It must also be approached
by a route that is dramatically crafted and fraught with signicance.
The scholar-rabbi opens his presentation as follows:
We believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who led the Israelites
out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and
gave them the land of Canaan, after having made them traverse the sea
and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moses with His Torah,
and subsequently thousands of prophets, who exhorted the people to
follow His Torah, promising reward to those who observed it and severe
punishment to the disobedient. We believe in all that is written in the
Toraha great deal to speak of.4

Kuzari I, 11.


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This is the essence of the rabbis dogma, and the difference between
his speech and that of the previous religious sages is clear. The Jewish sage omits the theoretical preamble, and plunges right into the
historical narrative. He presents the Torahs testimony in its entirety
as indisputable truth.
Why does he follow this procedure? Is it because he does not believe
in the origin of the world, its creation, or the unity and incorporeality
of God?
This is certainly not the case. He believes in all these things, and he
believes that these truths are included in Mosess Torah, which he has
accepted in its entirety. But precisely because he accepts these truths as
items included in the Mosaic Torah, he is not ready to start out with
them, for the Torah validates themthey do not validate the Torah.
The sages of the other religions begin with theological truths lacking any connection with revelation, and then it is possible to discuss
their premises by way of reason, and it is very doubtful whether they
may be rescued from philosophical doubt. By contrast, the rabbi starts
from historical experiencefrom Gods direct revelation to the Israelite
people when they left Egypt, the giving of the Torah and the prophecy
that exhorts them to observe the Torah.
The Most Ironic Turn in the Comedy of Errors
We stand now before the third stage, the most ironic of all, in the
comedy of errors that comprises Part I.
It is clearly evident that the beginning of the rabbis speech is nothing else than a parallel to the Khazar kings opening soliloquyin
other words, a parallel to the dream that is a stand-in for revelation.
Furthermore, the king is just now emerging dissatised from his conversations with the Christian and the Moslem. He sought a verication
of historical experience, and since he did not wholly nd it in their
words, he turned to the Jewish sage. At rst sight he ought to have been
overjoyed with the rabbis words that presented to him exactly what he
was looking for, but the Khazar kings reaction is the opposite from the
expected. Precisely these words strengthen him in his prior assessment
that he ought not to have investigated the Jewish religion:
I had decided not to inquire of a Jew, because I knew of their wretched
reputation and lack of sense, for poverty and degradation left them with
no good virtues. Should you not have said, O Jew, that you believe in God
the Creator of the World, Who orders it and guides it, who has created

r. judah halevi


you and provided for you, and such like claims, which are the standard
argument of any religious believer?5

The Khazar king prefers after all the opening of the two previous
religious sages, even though they could not satisfy him! This is clearly
a mistake. Its irony is especially sharp, because it stands in such clear
opposition to what the king is seeking, based on his dream and his
previous conversations.
And it is in fact clear that this mistake is not accidental. The kings
mistake is understandable from his dream and his situation. He stands
outside the domain of the particular history of the Israelite religion,
and therefore he asks concerning the universal, concerning that in
which he is able to participate directly as a human being. That is why
he turned rst to the philosopher; that is why he skipped over the Jew,
who represents a despised minority. That is why he turns on the Jewish
sage when he rst hears the exclusive doctrine of the chosen people:
I see you quite altered, O Jew, and your words are poor after having
been so rich.6
In all this we see again the general tendency of the contemporary
Jewish intellectual. He seeks a universal basis for religion, and here
comes Judaism and bases its verication on particular historical experiencethe experience of a small, oppressed people.
The Contrast between Judaisms Importance and Its Lowly Status
If we examine the meaning of this process in depth, then the kings
hostile response in the rst exchange with the rabbi becomes more
Halevi prepares us to expect in the rabbis historical opening the
only available way out of doubt in the area of religious life, and despite
this he prepares us for the kings initial disappointment. This is the
visible surface of an inner paradox that constitutes Halevis religious
Why was the king not satised with the words of the Christian and
Moslem sages? Because they did not provide sufcient experiential verication. Why could not the historical experience to which they pointed


Kuzari I, 12.
Kuzari I, 28.


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satisfy him? Because it lacks universal validity. He himself cannot participate in this experience! Here is what he says to the Christian:
As for me, I cannot accept these things, because they are new to me and
I have not grown up with them.7

And to the Moslem scholar he says:

And if your book is a miracle and it is in the Arabic language, a foreigner
such as I cannot recognize its miraculous character, for when it is read
to me I cannot hear any difference between it and any other discourse
in Arabic.8

The king demands historical verication that will be recognized universally. This requires verication before the masses. To be sure, the
Christian and Moslem start with universal premises, but they conclude
with particular evidences that are based on their own religious education and are unable to persuade an outsider.
That is the reason why the king reacted negatively to the rabbis
words. He does not feel that he has been given an adequate answer to
his question, for it seems at the outset that this answer too is based on
a particular tradition that does not address him.
The Nature of the Paradox: Particular Experience, but Universally Valid
And this is the paradox: In order for the experientially-based answer to
be persuasive, it must be based on a given particular experiencean
event that occurred to certain individual human beings. But nevertheless
it must be meaningful and available for verication by anyone. Such
an experience is possible only if we are speaking of certain individuals
who have a special status for humanity, people whose existence and
collective experience as a people has meaning for all human beings, in
other words, a special (chosen) people, whose every happening affects
everyone directly, so it comes about that everyone recognizes it.
Halevi was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Chosen
People idea and one of its greatest interpreters. This message is already
hinted at in the rabbis opening lines. But the message is composite.
Just as he sought to demonstrate that the religion that appears despised
and far from the truth is alone true and honorable, so he sought to


Kuzari I, 5.
Kuzari I, 6.

r. judah halevi


prove that the religion that appears the most particularistic of all is
truly universal in content and universally valid, while other religions
that pretend to universality and hold sway over the world are only the
product of historical accidents and incapable of imparting universal
validity to their experience.
Halevis paradox stands out in the very attempt to persuade a non-Jew
of the truth of the religion that is unique to the Jewish people. Only
from the assumption that this particular identity has universal validity
and meaning is it possible to explain this unusual confrontation. The
paradox is manifested also in Halevis depiction of the conversion to
Judaism of a man who in principle cannot be a Jew in the perfect sense
because he was not born Jewish.9
The Historical Verication of the Sinai Revelation
The rabbi was easily able to show the king that in effect he was asking
him to begin his words in a manner proper to a philosophical argument
fraught with many doubts, and that only in his way was it possible to
arrive at that experiential certainty that the king was seeking. He thus
demonstrated that the difference between the rabbis opening speech
and the opening speeches of the previous religious sages establishes the
superiority of the rabbis approach.
He opened with a historical event that occurred before the whole
Israelite people. Crowds of people were present to witness it. What
persuades the Jew to believe in the Mosaic Torah is an experience
that occurred before an entire people, and in our time not only can
all Jews know of it, but all humanity, on the basis of incontrovertible
historical evidence.
On what basis do Jews rely on their tradition? Halevis answer is:
on the basis of the universal consensus of the parents and teachers
of every Jewish person, who all received the same tradition based on
the unanimous testimony that was handed down from generation to
generation. But we should add that in each and every generation this
testimony was veried by the life experience of all who testied that
through their observance of the commands of the Torah they merited

We should observe that Halevis view of the imperfect Jewish status of converts
(see Kuzari I, 27) is his individual view and not the ofcial view of Judaism, which
generally recognizes converts as fully Jewish in all respects. (LL)


chapter six

the same experience of Gods presentness to His people through their

study and their prayer. We should emphasize that Halevi expressed in
this claim a consensus that passed from generation to generation without challenge. This consensus was not challenged until the foundations
of Jewish communal authority were challenged. For that reason it was
entirely persuasive in the eyes of Jews who were educated in the Jewish
community from birth. Only when the authority of the tradition was
challenged, and scientic (secular) historical scholarship raised doubts as
to the reliability of the facts to which the tradition attested, then Jews
also started to ask questions and to deny the authority of the testimony
that afrmed the Sinaitic revelation from generation to generation.
This certainty is expressed in the rabbis speech, but Halevi may
well have understood that the validity of the tradition for a Jew who
was raised in Judaism would have been different from its validity for a
person such as the Khazar king who was raised in a different religious
tradition, and who is seeking universal validation for the particular tradition to which the rabbi testies. He is therefore not satised with the
occurrence of the Sinai revelation in the sight of the Israelite people,
but he tries to demonstrate that the fundamentals of this tradition are
based on the culture of all humanity, and there is a universal tradition
that testies to it.

Halevis Historical Outlook

Judaism is the Foundation of Human Culture
The king, though critical, was persuaded that it would be worthwhile
to listen to a long and complicated lecture from the rabbi after he was
convinced of his error in angrily rejecting words that answered to his
expectations. But we should note that the king still does not convert.
Before he takes this step, be must be convinced that the revelation of
which the rabbi speaks relates to him as well. For he has a stake in the
historical experience attesting to it insofar as he is human, without tie
to the people and lineage that was educated in it. This is indeed the
rst discussion in which the rabbi begins propounding his special doctrine: the place of the Israelite religion in the development of general
human culture.
The assumption which Halevi seeks to establish through his historical
digression is that the Israelite religion is rooted in that single primordial

r. judah halevi


bedrock from which all national cultures developed. He bases himself

of course on the historical evidence of the book of Genesis. But since
the Khazar king still needs to be persuaded of the objective reliability
of this testimony, the rabbi must resort to evidences relating to the
foundational points of agreement of all cultures. First he deals with the
question of languagethe instrument by whose help culture is formed.
How did the various national languages come to be? Languages are
consensual verbal-symbolic structures. But it is impossible to come to
consensus without the facilitation provided by language itself. This is
a vicious circle from which one cannot escape without assuming that
at the basis of all languages was one language not created by human
beings but given to them. This language (argues the rabbi) is Hebrew,
and this is attested not only by the Genesis narrative, but also by its
special linguistic qualities. (Halevi devotes a detailed discussion to this
topic, which we pass over here.) From Hebrew, all other languages
were derived (referring to the Tower of Babel story). The rabbi notes
that despite the great differences among national cultures, there is universal agreement on certain basic issues, such as the decimal system
of numbering, counting time by weeks, months and years, etc. Such
agreements can only be explained on the assumption that all cultures
proceeded from one mother-culture, to which the Torah testies. Only
after the Khazar king was persuaded that the Genesis narrative relates
to him as a cultural human being and testies about the development
of the culture in which he himself was raised, was he nally persuaded
that he should accept the Israelite religion in order to learn the Torah
properly, as an insider learning the basics of his own culture.
The Importance of Study of History
From what we have said before we can learn the importance that Halevi
attributed to the study of history. God is revealed in history. The Torah
that is the foundation of Judaism was revealed in historical time and
veried by history. Through historical testimony we can distinguish
between the original religion and the religions that seek to displace
it. The centrality of the Israelite people and its Torahits status as
chosen peopleis expressed in the centrality of Jewish history in world
history. The history of Israel unies around it the history of humanity,
but the learning that is required does not stop with the knowledge of
important facts, but includes also questions of structure, the inner logic
and end-goal toward which that history strives.


chapter six

Halevi does not emphasize the idea that history is a direct continuation of the Genesis narrative (an idea that we saw emphasized in
R. Abraham bar iyya), but he alludes to it in several places. In Part 1
Halevi juxtaposes the discussion of the worlds creation with the discussion of the historicity of the biblical narrative. He assumed a connection
between them: there is a clear parallel between the divine activity of
creation and the divine revelation to Gods people at Sinai. This parallel assumes the notion that history comes to complete creation. The
creation narrative attests to perfection of the natural principle, while
history depicts the ascendancy of perfection of the divine principle
superimposed on nature. This idea is alluded to in the institution of
the Sabbath, in the creation narrative and also in the giving of the
Furthermore, Halevi did not accept bar iyyas deterministic conception of history, nor did he search the creation narrative for the
plan of history. Nevertheless, he saw in its progression what he saw
in creation: revelation of the divine will that governs the world. But
there is a difference between the divine revelation in creation and that
of history. Halevi did not accept astrological interpretation. The laws
of nature do not hold sway over history, and it has no predetermined
course. Rather, human beings in their free will create it in complex
reciprocal relation with God, who educates humanity to do His will
through reward and punishment. Thus Halevi returns to the biblical
conception of history.
Removing the Motive of Sin from the Historical Narrative
In keeping with this purpose Halevi offered his interpretation of the
biblical historical narrative, which combines with his previous evidences
that the Torah attests not just to Gods revelation to His people but also
to His revelation to all humanity. At the foundation of his approach
is the Torahs assumption, expressed in Genesis, that the revelation of
God to the people of Israel is the outgrowth of a series of prior revelations, and in this way the Israelite religion has its roots in the primordial
religion that was intended to be the religion of all humanity, except
that humanity at large was not able to arrive at it in one attempt. Its
propagation requires a prolonged educational process, and that is the
central task of history.
In order to explain this fact, the rabbi is driven to adopt a new concept pertaining to the question of the manner of Gods revelation to

r. judah halevi


human beings and the manner of drawing them near to Him. This is
the notion of the divine principle.10 The rabbi assumes that the king
will understand this concept and accept its content as true, because he
had a quasi-prophetic experience, and he knows that a dream of the
kind he hadthe revelation of an angelis not a common, everyday
experience. Not everyone is privileged to have it, but only individuals
with a special spiritual quality that disposes them to be particularly
devoted to the worship of their God. The king is portrayed as such
an individual, one who approached the worship of his gods with true
devotion. Nevertheless, he knows that the revelation of the angel is not
his own doing. He did not seek it by his own initiative. It was the angel
who appeared to him. The divine principle is then the special spiritual
quality for receiving revelation, not the revelation of an angel mediating
between God and man, but of God Himself. Just as all human beings
have an intellectual faculty that distinguishes them from other animals
so some human beings have a prophetic faculty, and they bring Gods
words to the people.
The question of the nature of this quality will occupy the rabbi later
on. Here resorts to the fact itself in order to explain why the original
true religion has not spread to all humanity. According to the biblical
narrative, it was rst attained by individuals such as Adam, Noah and
Abraham. Starting with Abraham it became the characteristic of a
family, from which grew an entire people, and presumably in time to
come the knowledge of God will spread to all humanity through the
agency of this people. But we should note that nevertheless, in the
rabbis view, according to the Torah, this is a quality that passes by
inheritance from father to son, rst to a single one of them, then by
stages to all of them.
Still, we should emphasize again that according to Halevi prophecy
depends on the one hand on the psychological disposition that fosters
religious devotion in a person, so that he is prepared for prophecy, and
on the other hand on Gods will to reveal Himself and communicate
His word.

The divine principle: Arabic {amr ilahi, Hebrew {inyan elohi: divine word, inuence, or
notion, one of Halevis central concepts.


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IsraelThe Heart of the Nations

This conception explains the relation between the history of Israel and
the history of the world. One people is at the heart of history, and the
other peoples are the body that the heart sustains. Israels mission is
the emanation of the divine principle to all humanity. It is nevertheless clear that this conception requires that we pay attention not only
to the history of Israel, but also to the history of the other nations,
and for this purpose he introduces a distinction between two kinds
of history. The history of the other nations conforms to the orders
and principles of nature. It was determined by God at creation until
the inception of the divine principle through Israels involvement,
whereas the people of Israel is governed by the divine principle, i.e.
direct divine providence, which exempts itwhen God so desires for
the sake of His missionfrom the laws of nature. In other words: the
miraculous dimension is a constant presence in Israelite history. This
assertion ts well with Halevis defense of the despised religion, and
it provides the background for the explanation that he gives the king
for the facts that led him originally to pass over the Jewish religion:
the victories and defeats of the natural nations can be explained in a
natural way, but they do not prove at all that God is with them or that
their religion is the true religion. Not so the victories and defeats of the
Jewish people. If we examine them in detail, we discover that the laws
of nature cannot explain how this small nation succeeded in freeing
themselves from slavery and the yoke of a power such as Egypt, and
later settled in a land in which dwelt seven nations greater and more
powerful than themselves. They cannot explain the expansion of the
kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. But by the same token
one cannot explain the unparalleled fearsome calamities that it has
endured, much less how this people managed to survive and persist
in its mission despite such calamities. All this indicates that though
these people are persecuted and despised, divine providence has not
abandoned them. All this conrms their true mission.
The Meaning of Suffering and Exile
All the important transitions in Israelite historythe transition from
an individual to a family, from a family to a peoplewere fraught
with great suffering and the readiness to withstand it in order to bear
witness. The tragedy of the ood, which Noah escaped, Abrahams

r. judah halevi


ight from his land of origin and his many trials; the enslavement in
Egypt, and the Babylonian Exile. In that case, what is the explanation
for all the exiles of the past, and the most recent exile that has been so
prolonged? Should one see in all these evidence that God despises His
people for their stiff-neckedness and for a sin heavy beyond endurance,
as Christianity and Islam argue?
Halevi did not entirely reject the argument that exile includes an element of punishment for the sins of the people against God. After all,
the prophets proclaim this constantly. But Halevi explains the severity
of these punishments on the basis of the peoples special status and
mission. If we compare the moral sins of the Jewish people to those of
other peoples, they are relatively slight. But in the case of other peoples,
God leaves them to the inevitable process of nature: their destructive
evil will bring about their downfall. But God punishes His people with
extra severity because they perform His mission. Thus the severity of
the punishment attests to the peoples greatness and importance, not
the opposite.
Halevis Vision of the Present
In this connection there is also considerable interest in the explanation that Halevi gives to the unusual length of the most recent exile,
an explanation that distinguishes Halevi as one of the precursors of
Zionism. Is the length of the exile a consequence of the severity of
the sin? Surely (responds Halevi) the destruction of the second Temple
came as a punishment for the sins that the rabbis enumerated, but
these sins were not as severe as those which the prophets mentioned
in connection with the destruction of the rst Temple. Idolatry was
prevalent in the former time, but not in the latter.
If those sins were atoned for in seventy years and the people returned
to its land and rebuilt its Temple, then why has the second exile been
prolonged so far? Halevis marvelously simple answer is that the whole
matter depends on the will and initiative of the people. The people
who underwent the Babylonian Exile (but evidently not all of them)
returned to their land of their own initiative after their sin was expiated, whereas in the second exile the people held fast to their exile long
after the sin had been expiated. There had been several opportunities,
and if the Jews had wanted, they could have returned to their desolate land that awaited them. This was their sinthe sin of holding
on to exile, for despite the suffering one could not deny that for long


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periods the Jews prospered as individuals (though not as a people) in

exile, whereas return to the desolate land would have required heavy
personal sacrices . . .
These words had clear and present signicance. Halevi anticipated
in his time a powerful historical event by which the divine principle
would be manifested in the world. The struggle between the Christian
and Moslem peoples for conquest of the Holy Land clearly testied to
this, for Christianity and Islamthough they seemed to Halevi inauthentic substitutes for the Jewish religion, or maybe precisely for that
reasonwould fulll the mission for spreading the divine principle
throughout humanity. The moment must come when these two religions would acknowledge the undimmed truth of the original religion
in whose name they have operated. This was in his view the meaning
of the return to the Holy Land, the land of the chosen people. But
for that reason the people of Israel must also contribute its part and
return to its land, in which alone could its Torah be fullled in all its
splendor, as a testimony to all humanity.
It is clear from this that Halevi saw in the historical events of his
time, which he regarded as manifest miracles ( just as the conversion
of the Khazars was a miracle to him) a clear sign to the people of
Israel that they are commanded to leave exile behind and return to
their land. But they must do this of their own volition and initiative,
thus proving themselves worthy of the miracle of redemption, which
will come without delay.

The Divine Principle and Prophecy

From everything that has been said so far we can learn that with
respect to the task of philosophy of religion, the key issue is prophecy
and its relation to ordinary human intellectual knowledge. How do
prophets differ from other people? Are we speaking of a clearer and
more developed intellect, as the philosopher argued, since in his view
prophecy was identied with knowing metaphysical truth? Or are we
perhaps speaking of a supra-rational faculty that enables the knowledge
of supra-rational reality?
Indeed, Halevi developed his theory of the essence of prophecy
out of his confrontation with the Aristotelian philosophy of his time,
according to the interpretation of the Arab Aristotelians. According
to their view, prophecy was a natural human perfection, and whoever

r. judah halevi


is properly prepared for it achieves it. In other words, prophecy is the

highest level of attainment of the human intellectknowledge of the
eternal truth, including the concepts of all reality as the content of
one cognition. What, then, distinguishes philosopherswho are people
who have achieved perfect knowledgefrom prophets, who have a
social mission? The answer lies in the developed imaginative faculty
that enables them to express truths through sensory images, by which
they are able to bring the truth to the masses in a form and degree
in which they can comprehend it, and in this way to fulll the role of
legislators and spiritual leaders. (We shall deal with this issue in depth
when we come to Maimonidess teaching.)
Halevi was especially sensitive to the fact that the Aristotelian theory
of prophecy had no room for the notion of revelation as understood
in the BibleGods personal turning toward human beings in order
to command them and guide them. According to the philosophical
outlook, man turns to God and attains His truth and the laws that
derive from it, and when he does this he transcends his particularity
and becomes pure intellect. In other words, prophecy is not a dialogue
but a particular level of identication between divine and human
intellect. In Halevis view, this negates the Biblical view of divinity,
and ignores the experiential content of the divine-human encounter,
whether in prophecy or in prayer. He therefore saw a need to refute
the Aristotelian view and to develop in its place a scientic view that
afrms the biblical experience.
At the rst stage of the discussion Halevi seeks to prove by historical experience that actual prophetic revelation was different from the
philosophical description of prophecy. He acknowledges that reason
dismisses the notion that God, who is too exalted above human understanding, should stoop to have discourse with human beings. But the
unequivocally veried facts (prophecy is a frequent phenomenoneven
the Khazar king had a quasi-prophetic experience) prove that God does
indeed speak with human beings. Since God is omnipotent, we have
no cause to doubt this evidence of experience.
At the second stage, Halevi attempts to describe the conditions and
circumstances in which this revelation occurs. It becomes clear that
within certain limits, Halevi accepts something of the philosophical
position. In what respect? In the assumption that prophecy requires
prior preparation from the human side. Indeed, God reveals Himself
to whomever He wants, but only if the recipient has prepared for it.
And how does he differ from the philosophical position? In respect of


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the kind of preparation required. Philosophers make prophecy conditional on ethical and intellectual perfection, and Halevi agrees that
prophets must be completely moral and wise people. But he adds the
requirement of religious perfection expressed in worship of God. In
addition, he argues that by the evidence of the Torah prophecy was
generally propagated among the members of a particular family and
then within a special people, in a special land, when the Temple was
in existence (except for a few cases, of which one can say that the
exception proves the rule).
All this supports the view that we are not speaking only of an intellectual perfection that can subsist in any person, any place, or any time.
In that case, the divine principle depends on a very different kind of
qualityan empirical, supra-rational quality.
The Substantive Difference between Israel and the Nations
On this point Halevi takes a surprising turn in the course of the discussion, at least from the kings point of view. According to the philosophical outlook that became the scientic consensus in the Middle
Ages (and would certainly be accepted as such by the king), there are
ve levels of reality: inanimate matter, plants, animals, human beings
with speech and reason, and angels (disembodied intellects). Halevi
discloses that there is another level between human beings and angels,
namely prophets, who possess the supra-rational faculty. Clearly, if the
prophets embody a substantive quality that distinguishes them from
ordinary people in the same way that human beings are distinguished
from animals, then we are speaking not of individuals but of an entire
group. The individuals who are designated as prophets are merely the
most developed exemplars, just as the philosophers are the choicest
representatives of rational mortals. Who, then, constitute that group in
which this special quality is expressed? We must concludethe people
of Israel, who carry the quality of prophecy in its potential form.
Jews are thus distinguished from other peoples by an ontological
difference, not simply a national or religious difference. But surely it
is not Halevis purpose to exclude his people from the category of
humanity! Jews are human beings like everyone else, and as such they
are not necessarily wiser or more ethical or superior in any human
respect, for differences in all these parameters are purely individual.
Jews are special only in possessing the potential for a certain kind of
consciousness, which they carry as if it were an organic trait, just as

r. judah halevi


the eye carries the potential of sight and the ear carries the potential
of hearing. Therefore, whoever is born into the Israelite nation has the
potential for prophecy, and this secures for Jews the absolute advantage
of being able to achieve tangible closeness between themselves and
God, an advantage that is expressed particularly in their religion and
in their ritual practice.
The Prophets Religious Superiority to the Philosopher
This theory, which adds another level to the chain of beingone that
the philosopher can detect through his ordinary sensory and intellectual
facultiesenables Halevi to employ the tools of philosophical analysis to
establish the superiority of prophecy to philosophy. It is a straightforward
empirical deduction. The philosopher is limited in his knowledge by his
sensory and intellectual capabilities. He cannot know what is beyond
the reach of his sensory perception and his ordinary logical reasoning,
and so he has no way of knowing about the existence and essence of
God except what reason demonstrates, namely that God exists as the
cause of existence of all reality that is grasped by the senses and by
reason. Of Gods essence he can know nothing. Clearly in this mode it
is far-fetched to suggest that what is exalted beyond all knowledge will
reveal itself to human beings and speak to them. This is knowledge
by extrapolation that ends with our realization of our ignorance. By
contrast, the prophet knows God face to face. This is the instructive
parable that the rabbi offers the king: The difference between prophet
and philosopher is like the difference between one who has heard by
report that there is a king with extraordinary powers, and one who
knows the king by face-to-face encounter with him.
If we push the parable to its logical conclusion, its existential import
becomes obvious. In all likelihood our face-to-face encounter with
the king will not provide us with any more cognitive or conceptual
knowledge than the hearer of the report has, but the kings immediate
presence not only gives absolute certainty, but is itself an experience
affecting the entire person. It is this experience that the prophet knows
better than the philosopher and expresses through his worship.
The Philosophical Basis
Thus Halevi employs the tools of philosophy to establish the superiority of prophecy to philosophy. Indeed, Aristotle prefers observational,


chapter six

sensory-based experience to knowledge based on logical inference. Even

if inferences are demonstrative and irrefutable, they lack the certainty
of direct experience, for whatever we know of reality is based on our
senses in the last analysis. Therefore in any conict between the conclusions of logic and those of experience, we should prefer the conclusions
of experience even if we do not know how to explain them. Thus the
debate with philosophy is reduced to a single epistemological issue.11
The philosopher argues that real experience of the transcendent is
impossible in principle. Halevi responds that indeed philosophers do
not have that kind of experience, but the prophets of Israel do indeed
have such an experience. You cannot convince the philosophers through
the argument that this is an experience beyond their understanding.
But when they meet people who are able to prove empirically that
they have experience of the divine presence through miraculous events
that point to supernatural intervention, a proper philosophical method
should acknowledge the fact and retreat.
Developing an Epistemology of Prophecy
We now come to the crucial stage of Halevis theory of prophecy
developing an epistemology of prophecy. True to form, he builds on the
Aristotelian conception. He assumes the existence of a set of internal
senses in the prophet structured in parallel to the external senses. Just
as the external senses represent physical entities, so the internal senses
represent spiritual entities. These are ethereal essences that belong to
the supernal divine world through which God is manifested.
The prophetic vision is thus an experience of being in the presence
of spiritual entities, through which God expresses His will. This is not
all. In addition to the ordinary prophetic experience, there is also an
experience of being directly in Gods presence, and this is the summit
of prophecy. It is to this experience that the name YHVH (whose root
meaning is being) alludes.

For a contemporary update of this discussion, see William Alston, Experiencing
God. (LL)

r. judah halevi


The Divine Perfections

Halevi attaches no importance to the theory of divine attributes, for
it deals with the question of God existing as a conception of human
thought. On the other hand, he ascribes great importance to the divine
names. A name is not an attribute but signies the presence of some
essence in its fullness. When we sayh the man with the blue eyes, no
personal presence is indicated, but when we say Reuben, the name
conjures up the personal presence of a certain individual to whoever
knows him. The name YHVH indicates the presence of God, which the
prophet experiences directly, without the mediation of the ethereal forms
perceived by the inner sense. This is the highest level of prophecy.
Ranks of Prophetic Experience
It is possible in this fashion to describe a hierarchy of prophetic experiences, each higher than its predecessor, forming a kind of ladder. They
have in common the notion of immediate presence of God, which is
a direct experience more certain than any intellectual proof.
Halevi argues this not in order to give preference to the prophets
outlook over the philosophers outlook. His primary purpose is to legitimate the experience of divine presence as a variety of true knowledge.
Halevi thus displays the poetic side of his doctrine. The philosophers
describe pure knowledge, stripped of all material and sensory aspects,
as the summit of bliss that intellectual man can attain, and they identify
love not as a feeling but as intellectual bliss. But Halevi decidedly prefers
the experience of presence and the feeling of love even when speaking
of the experience of sensory beauty and the love of esh-and-blood
humans. No abstract conceptuality can do justice to the richness and
plenitude of the experience. Whatever the intellect grasps from analysis and distinctions, experience grasps instantaneously as a whole. Not
the abstract knowledge that the prophet derives from his experience is
important, but the sense of presence before God. This is the highest
bliss. The litmus test is the readiness to undergo the decisive test of
faiththe test of martyrdom (sanctication of the Divine Name).
According to this version the motive of the prophetic vocation is
different from what the philosophers think. Essentially, the mission of
prophecy is not to reveal the truth to the masses in accordance with
their level of comprehension, as the philosophers think. It is rather
to reveal the means by which all people can attain to the rank of the


chapter six

religious experienceeach according to his level, of course. Here we

nd the point of connection between Halevis doctrine of prophecy
and his doctrine of the religious way of life constituted by revealed

The Purpose and Value of Jewish Practice

Correct Religious Practice
Describing prophecy as metaphysical experience transcending intellectual perfection enables Halevi to explain the fundamental assumption
that was already implied by the angels speech in the kings dream: there
is a kind of religious action that is intrinsically correct. It is correct not
by virtue of the intention accompanying it or the idea symbolized by
it, but by virtue of the action itself, i.e. its experiential quality.
Already in Part I Halevi cited a parable that he borrowed from the
Moslem philosopher Al-Ghazali (who was very similar to him in his view
of the opposition of religion and philosophy): the commandments of
the Torah in matters of divine worship are like a physicians remedies.
Their purpose is not to inuence ones thoughts but various processes
in the body orby analogyin the life of the soul. Medicines are not
discovered by logic but on the basis of experience, and on that basis
one determines how much, when and how they are to be administered.
Even after the fact we cannot explain logically why a particular medicine
works in such a way and not otherwise. The same applies to the commands of the Torah that affect the life of the soul that is connected to
the body. They assist the emotional preparation for the experience of
encounter with God, whether through prayer or prophecy, and they
must be learned through experience. It is the prophet who has that
experience. Indeed, that is his primary mission.
Active Living in the Religious Realm
Behind this interpretation of ritual commandments is an entire outlook. Halevi developed it as a kind of second story on the foundation
of the philosophers ethics and in parallel to it. Similarly, he replaced
the philosophical ideal of a life of theory and contemplation with
the prophetic ideal of active living particularly in the religious realm:

r. judah halevi


service of God in human society out of a positive relation to physical

and worldly existence.
Based on this conception Halevi develops a very interesting synthesis
of the Kalamic position, represented by Saadia Gaons teaching, and
the Platonic position represented by Bayas Duties of the Heart.
Halevis pronouncements on the way of life of the believing Jew
are concentrated principally in Part 3 of his book. We discussed the
structure of this part earlier, and we shall examine its content now in
more detail.
Part 3 starts with the question: What are the traits of an observant
worshipper in your faith? The answer begins with a criticism of what
is regarded as exemplary piety in Christianity and Islam. These nd
the idel of perfect piety in the monk who withdraws from the world
and takes on afictions in order to strengthen his feeling of dedication
and devotion. Judaism sees things differently. Halevi says:
The pious person in our faith does not cut himself off from the world,
so that he should not be a burden on us nor a burden to himself, nor
should he despise life which is a part of Gods benecence . . . but he
loves the world and longevity because this life is the means by which we
acquire eternal life.

This outlook recalls Saadias, though it proceeds from a clearer afrmation of this-worldly life. But even in the polemical context there is a
special emphasis here. It becomes clear that those who have abandoned
the laws of the Mosaic Torah, which alone provide the path to religious
fulllment, necessarily tend to express their religious feeling in a life of
austerity. The monk is sincere in his religious impulse, and he expresses
it in his monasticism as he lacks the means to achieve religious perfection. The Jew who possesses Gods commandments does not need to
resort to this, so he shuns the monastic path.
Halevi nevertheless recognizes that there were recluses among the
prophets and the early Jewish pietists, but he argues that they did this
not out of a negative valuation of this world, but because they arrived
at a higher level in which they had no bodily needs. Thus their reclusive
practice was not for ascetic motives. But this level of spirituality was
possible only in the land of Israel, during the time when the Temple
was in existence. In exile, religious austerity is connected with sufferings
that lead to decline and degradation. At any rate, Halevi denitively
rejects the monastic ideal.


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The Golden Mean

After rejecting religious monasticism Halevi discusses the philosophical
ethic. As we said, Halevi develops an argument from Platos Republic,
but with an opposite twist: The just man takes care concerning his
realm, giving all inhabitants their just portion. Thus he satises their
needs and acts justly towards them. When the Khazar king objects,
I asked about the pious person, not the just ruler, the scholar-rabbi
responds, The pious person rules over his senses and facultieswhether
spiritual or physicaland conducts them with the proper discipline, as
the proverb says, Better one who rules his spirit than one who captures
a city.12
In other words, political justice is a parable for proper individual
conduct. This is a position that can be afrmed in agreement with
Platos teaching and Aristotles as well. Indeed, from here on Halevi
presents the philosophical doctrine of the golden mean as a true
doctrine, with which he agrees in the ethical domain: one should grant
each of the souls faculties its necessary satisfaction, but deny its request
when it seeks more than its just desert, for this would cause harm. A
person exercises voluntary control over his urges by giving them satisfaction in the proper measure, and he can then act in every matter
in accordance with ethical and legal norms, not by the dictates of his
lusts and pleasures. In that case, the ethical ideal is governance of the
souls faculties by the intellect working through the will.
But as important as this self-governance is to Halevi, it is not the
goal but a means to the goal. And in this regard Halevi constructs an
argument parallel to that of philosophy:
When a person has provided for the needs of all of thesesatisfying his
basic vital needs through rest and sleep, and his animal needs through
waking activities in worldly occupationsthen he will call to his body
politic like a responsive ruler who calls to his obedient troops to assist
him to take control of a higher strategic position

Halevis departure from the philosophers position is found only in the

next phrase. In Platos and Aristotles view, the harmony of the souls
faculties is a means to ascend to the level of intellectual contemplation.
But Halevi goes on to say: That is to say, to ascend to the divine level,
which is above the intellectual level. To clarify his idea further, he sets

Kuzari 3:5 (and so the next several quotations).

r. judah halevi


the harmony of the terrestrial faculties of the soul in opposition to the

higher harmony: He should arrange and order his community in a
manner similar to that by which Moses arranged the Israelite community around Mount Sinai! The community is a parable for the souls
faculties over which the pious person exercises control.
Intellectual Life is Subordinate to Religious Purpose
Setting the divine level above the intellectual level does not imply negation of intellectual perfection. On the contrary, Halevi requires it as a
part of religious perfection, but he subordinates it as a means to the
higher goal. Thus he continues his exposition:
He orders his will to process carefully every command issued by him, and
to carry it out in a timely fashion. He employs his faculties and limbs
to do as they are instructed without resistance, and orders them not to
be distracted by temptations of thought or fancy, not to yield to them
or give them credence until the intellect has passed judgment on them:
if the intellect certies them, they can act on them; if not, they should
renounce them.

The intellect discriminates what should be accepted as a divine command and what is not worthy of this status. But the true rank of piety
consists in being active in compliance with the higher command, after
one has ordered the faculties of his soul in accord with the principles
that the human intellect apprehends independently.
The difference between Halevi and the philosophers is apparent also
in his positive valuation of the imaginative faculty, which the philosophers regard as a nuisance but Halevi sees as an asset:
He directs the imagination to project the most impressive images available
from memory, that represent the sought-after divine principle, such as
the Israelites standing at Sinai, Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah,
Mosess Tabernacle, the sacricial ritual, the descent of the divine glory
on the Temple, and the like.

The worshipper of God perfects the harmony of his souls faculties

aimed at direction of his bodily conduct. Afterwards he removes his
attention from these earthly matters and focuses it on the elements
of correct faith, in order to know what he is commanded in that
regard. With this focusing of his thought he raises up in his imagination an image of holiness dealing with matters of revelation, and thus
he arrives at a state of consciousness of being commanded by God.


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This focusing of consciousness is necessary for him to recognize his

practical obligation.
Halevi greatly emphasizes the importance of the persons full awareness of being commanded by God, that transforms the serenity of
contemplation into an obligation to act. When a Jew stands in prayer,
that is like a soldier standing at command:
After this preparation, the will musters all the limbs that serve it eagerly,
energetically and joyfully, and they stand without reservation, and bow
at the time to bow, and sit at the time to sit. The eyes look with the look
of a servant toward his master, and the hands cease from their labors
and wait in position. The legs stand straight. All the limbs are poised in
anxious reverence to perform their masters command, without consideration for pain or loss.

Submission Leads to Exaltation

When a person recognizes that God commands him, his assumption of
the posture of commandedness raises him to an unsurpassed status of
inner bliss and plenitude. Thus Halevi says of the time of prayer:
That moment becomes the heart and fruit of his time, while all his other
times are as means to arrive at that time. He longs for the approach of
that hour in which he resembles the angels and is far from the animals.
The choicest fruit of his day and night are those three times of prayer,
and the choice fruit of the week is the Sabbath day, because it is set
aside for connection with the divine principle and to serve God in joy,
not submission.

The Reasons for the CommandmentsAids to Spiritual Harmony

How does Halevi understand this inner plenitude that results from recognizing ones utter commandedness? He does not recommend submission
from fear and inferiority, but rather an obedience that proceeds from
understanding the value of Gods commands. We notice here a basic
difference between him and Saadia, who based the reason for the arbitrary commandments on the very act of obedience. In Halevis view, the
obedience to these commandments, which have a quasi-medical value
as we said, has a benecial and enriching inuence on the person who
performs them. They give him a feeling of inner harmony and a sense
of inner responsiveness to the divine presence. The whole personality
is thus activated by fullling the mitzvah. An inner harmony is fostered

r. judah halevi


between the faculties of the body and soul from their devotion to God.
Halevi resorts to another bodily metaphor: just as satisfying the needs
of the body restores ones physical powers, so do the mitzvot do for
the soul. The service of God is sustenance for the soul:
All this stands in the same relation to the soul as food to the human
body. Prayer satises his soul as food nourishes his body. The blessing of
one prayer sustains him to the time of the next prayer, just as breakfast
sustains him until dinnertime. The longer that the soul has been deprived
of prayer, the more it is darkened by the assault of worldly affairs.

Halevi describes the level on which the believer experiences the divine
principle as a level above normal human perfection. A person experiences something divine in Gods presence: this is no passive reception
of a divine efuence, but rather a spiritual act that puries, claries
and renews the person. In modern terms we would say that by serving
God through the mitzvot, the soul of the believer achieves not only
exaltation, but self-actualization.13
On this basis Halevi is able in the sequel to give a detailed explanation of all the rules governing prayer and worship, to explain their
source in prophecy, and to refute the approach of the Karaites, who
interpret the Bible in an individualistic, rationalistic way.
Fulllment in the divine light comes from the highest activity of the
soul, not from passivity. It comes from afrmation of the world and
afrmation of human society, not from asceticism. The believers way
is a set cycle in which he passes alternately through states of lowliness
and exaltation: the three daily prayers, the weekly Sabbath, the festivals,
the Day of Atonement. The yearly calendar is a complete cycle of life
through which the observant Jew passes repeatedly, turning on the axis
of connection to God just as the heavenly planets turn in their orbits
in harmonic imitation of eternity.

Summary of Halevis Position Against Philosophy

We may summarize Halevis teaching as he concluded it in Part 5 of
his book: a frontal confrontation against the detailed philosophical

See especially Abraham Maslows discussion of the religious aspect of self-actualization in Towards A Psychology of Being.


chapter six

argument which he avoided, as it were, during the central presentation. After the scholar-rabbi has taught the king all that he must know
from the Torah, the time has come to show him that the philosophical
argument in matters of religion is far from convincing even from an
intellectual standpoint.
It would seem that there is no need for this move, but Halevi understands that a person who has once struggled with philosophy will not
be entirely secure in his faith and will retain a smidgen of doubt if
he does not receive a satisfying answer for the problems that once
bothered him.
The Preference for Debate with Aristotelianism
In accordance with the dialogical structure of the book, the scholarrabbi turns to deliver a frontal refutation against philosophy at the
kings request. But even here Halevi highlights the dialogical process
through a confrontation between the student-kings request and the
teacher-rabbis response. The king, who was already aware of the
scholar-rabbis opposition to the philosophical position on religion, is
careful to request a discourse that would support him in the manner of
the Kalamic sages who sought to validate religion through philosophical
arguments, as Saadia did. He assumed that the rabbi would consider
this request legitimate, but to his surprise it turns out that he miscalculated again. Just the opposite! It is the rabbis view that if he wants to
clarify denitively the relationship between reason and revelation, it is
better for him to deal consistently with the best fruits of pure reason,
not with a method that compromises with revelation at the outset and
therefore deserves the scorn that the philosophers accord it. Furthermore, the king learns to his surprise that even the scholar-rabbi, who
agrees that the position of the Mutazilite Kalam is religiously kosher,
nds it philosophically lacking. Therefore, instead of discoursing on the
Kalam position, the scholar-rabbi returns to the philosophers opening
speech and seeks to refute it philosophically.
But we will not plumb the full depths of Halevis position here
unless we point out another reason for which he wished to question the
Kalams scientic pretensions. The Karaite sages based themselves on
Kalamic arguments before Saadia, who came to ght them with their
own weapons. The Kalamic approach was the basis for their rationalist interpretation of the Bible, which they counterpoised to rabbinic

r. judah halevi


interpretation. This was why they remained faithful to the Kalam when
it passed out of fashion among Moslem and Jewish thinkers alike.
It is of interest that even Saadia did not follow the Kalamic method
on a number of issues but preferred the Aristotelian alternative view (for
instance, in preferring the form-and-matter theory to Kalamic atomism),
and his dispute with the Karaites may have been at the basis of this.
In any case, from Halevis standpoint the philosophical discrediting of
the Kalam was meant to be the last nail in the cofn of the Karaiterationalist critique of the rabbinic Oral Law.
The Basis of the Debate with Philosophy
We mentioned above the common basis of Halevi and the Aristotelian philosophers: the recognition that all our knowledge is based on
sensory experience or inference from what was learned from sensory
experience. Aristotles classic statement on this matter was that there
is nothing in the intellect except what was in the senses. Therefore
things that we have learned from critically-evaluated experience will
stand the encounter with theories that we arrived at from logic. Whenever experience contradicts a logical theory that we arrived at on the
basis of other sensory knowledge, we must go back and examine the
theory, and to develop another theory that will explain all our knowledge without exception.
It was on the basis of this Aristotelian stipulation that Halevi based
his conclusion that prophetic experience refutes any countervailing
metaphysical theory. Prophetic experience has the force of sensory experience (though it is based on internal rather than external experience),
while metaphysics has only theoretical force. But in order to establish
this argument denitively, it was necessary to address Aristotelian metaphysics substantively, for philosophers regarded it not only as true and
certain, but as a kind of truth that one could not arrive at from the
senses, but only with a clear and developed intellect. Therefore they
regarded prophetic theories such as Halevis as based on delusion and
fantasy, and they regarded the argument of internal sense as a theory
lacking any realistic basis.
Halevis response to the last argument is familiar to us. The philosophers were not favored with internal senses because they were
not Jewish, and so their experience, based only on external sense, did
not validate the existence of the other. But this is the same kind of


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argument that one blind from birth might deploy against seeing people
who speak about colors and shapes. To be sure, the seeing cannot share
their experience with him. But they can nevertheless convince him
that they have a different experience through their behaviors that are
based on their knowledge. They can also give him some concept of
their experience by drawing a parallel between the sense of sight and
other senses such as hearing, which is also sensory experience operating
at a distance. It was Halevis intention with prophetic experience to
draw a parallel between inner sense and imagination. Prophets resort
to imaginative representations in order to make their experience vivid
to their audience, for instance in the case of Ezekiels descriptions of
the Chariot. The difference between ordinary imagination and prophetic experience is that the experience of the prophet does not use
the memory of ordinary sensory impressions, but it derives from the
presence of spiritual entities that transcend him, just as ordinary sense
reects the reality of external objects.
How Reliable is Reason?
In his summary philosophical discussion Halevi extended his argument that the prophet has metaphysical experience, and on that basis
he extended the further argument that philosophers metaphysical
speculation that rests directly on physical experience is not worthy
of credence, not only because its conclusions are incompatible with
the data of prophecy, but because they have no intrinsic validity. The
philosophers maintain that metaphysics is a kind of knowledge: a
conceptual framework that captures supra-sensory reality. But in truth
it provides only a conceptual abstraction of a conceptual abstraction,
without touching the reality to which the concept refers, for such a
reality can only be grasped by the senses.
In this way, Halevi came to an essential epistemological conclusion.
A conceptual conclusion and logical considerations that follow from
it capture substantive reality only when they refer directly to sensory
objects. All conclusions that relate to supra-sensory reality, when they
are derived from second-order abstraction (abstraction from an abstraction), recede from reality without arriving at another reality. They are
not doubtful, but empty, because the abstracting intellect expresses
nothing but itself. Indeed, metaphysical reason only demonstrates that
the reality of the angels and of God above them is a reality of a sort

r. judah halevi


beyond our reason, nothing more. It follows that philosophys daring

attempt to grasp metaphysical truth is impressive, riveting and marvelous, but irrelevant to reality.
What Is Philosophys Domain of Validity?
This argument is philosophical, and it is not a categorical deligitimation
of philosophy. On the contrary: it expresses considerable appreciation
of philosophy, and Halevi concedes that he learned from it many truths
that one cannot nd in the Torah and whose study the Torah does not
oppose, but the contrary. It encourages it. The purpose of the discussion is the precise denition and delimitation of what one can attain
through the conceptual tools of philosophy: scientic knowledge that
describes earthly reality conceptually. Whatever cannot be achieved by
these tools can only be attained through prophecy.
Re-examining the Philosophers Speech
From this point on the scholar-rabbi reviews the philosophers speech,
breaks it apart into its components and examines each part in order
to show that what rst appeared logical and convincing to the king is
shown after critical examination to be a collection of suppositions for
which one can substitute others, none of which has the certainty of
Halevis structural literary art shows itself also at this stage of the
discussion. The scholar-rabbi presents the philosophical doctrines faithfully, but this time ironically to test his student: will his critical ability
stand him in good stead after learning the Jewish Torah, in order to
detect for himself the weak-points lurking in them?
In the rst stage of his journey the king passed the test, but in the
second stage he fell into the characteristic errors of the generation
uncritical faith in philosophersso that the scholar-rabbi was forced
to point out the weak points himself.
The Source of Halevis Arguments against the Philosophers
We need not elaborate on the details of Halevis critical discussion. At
this stage Halevi relied on the famous Moslem source that we alluded
to earlier, namely Al-Ghazalis Destruction of Philosophy. In general,


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it demonstrates that Aristotles doctrines of primordial matter and

the elements are mere hypotheses, and that the description that the
philosophers offer for the coming-into-being of entities in our world
suffers from many ambiguities and imprecisions (the use of the word
nature, for instance), and that the biblical assertion that the creation
as presented is the fruit of the divine will is simpler and more reasonable
than any philosophical theory. He similarly shows that the philosophers
views on the immortality of the intellect as a substitute for the religious
doctrine of the immortality of the soul is only an elegant evasion of
the problem, for if they mean that after the death of the individual all
the truths that the individual learned remain true, this does not imply the
survival of any remnant of the individual personality. Finally he shows
his student that in all matters pertaining to the metaphysical domain
there is no consensus of the philosophers supporting one doctrine (in
contrast with the case in physical science). Each of them proves his
hypothesis by means of proofs that seem convincing at rst, but their
disputes prove that they are subjective and subject to refutation with
only a slight effort.
But we should emphasize that even in the metaphysical realm Halevi
did not totally disqualify the value of philosophical speculation. First of
all, it satises a human need that is worth satisfying. Second, it is useful
in the critique of religion and in the conversation between religions, and
nally, if one resorts to it on the basis of guidance from the Torah, it
can be fruitful for understanding the Torahs own doctrines.
Conclusion of the Kuzari
But we should emphasize at the end of our inquiry into Halevis thought
that the importance of philosophical thought for him was only secondary and instrumental. He objects to the philosophical approach that
presents the acquisition of truth concerning all reality as the be-all and
end-all of human existence. In Halevis view this is intellectual idolatry.
The purpose of human existence is achieved through serving God, and
Halevi concludes his book by the scholar-rabbis announcement that as
a result of his discussion with the king he decided himself to move to
the land of Israel in order to fulll there the commandments that are
connected with the land of Israel, which in Halevis view were among
the most important, as well as being indispensable for prophecy. This
conclusion is fascinating from the standpoint of closing the circle of

r. judah halevi


the dialogue: while the scholar persuaded the king to accept the Jewish
religion, the king (who had by now faithfully carried out the angels
charge) persuaded him to draw the practical conclusion that followed
from the Torah, which commanded him to ascend to a higher level
in serving God.
In the conclusion of the chapter on Ibn Gabirol we said that the specic
content of Jewish traditionparticularly its historical dimensionwere
not expressed in his theoretical philosophy, but only in his poetic creation, for this content did not raise for him any problem with which
he had to deal theoretically.
Just one generation later, in Rabbi Abraham bar iyya, these issues
took center stage. The claims of the tradition became problematic and
difcult, but not in the same way as they were for R. Saadia Gaon.
The question of the relation of reason and revelation was not the main
issue, but rather the historical existence of the Jewish people among the
nations. In R. Judah Halevis thought, this struggle reached its climax.
But together with iton account of the interfaith debate that was thrust
into the centerthe rst problem that occupied Saadia was reopened
in another manner, that rendered his solution insufcient. The revealed
Torah was challenged by the Aristotelian philosophy, which offered a
complete alternative to religious truth.
The new challenge undermined the solution that treated philosophical investigation as a mere tool for supporting religious certainty. One
needed to make a prior decision in favor of revealed truth or philosophical truth.
R. Judah Halevi set these two ways opposite each other and sharpened the confrontation between them. Only after deciding in favor of
revelation solely on its own basis was he able to accept from philosophy
too the truth that he found in it and to use it in order to strengthen his
support of revelation. But this was only a rst stage of confrontation
with the Aristotelian philosophy, which became the central philosophical stream in European culture. Just as in the Moslem and Christian
worlds, so in the Jewish world there were philosophers who saw in this
stream the way to knowledge of general truth, which was important
to them in itself. Thus arose once more the challenge of establishing
and reconciling the truth acquired through reason and the truth of


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revelation. The central personality in this struggle was Maimonides,

the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages.
In the next section of this book we shall therefore deal with Maimonidess thought and that of his students and his major critics.





Maimonidess Life
Maimonides was born in Cordova, Spain in 1135 to a distinguished
family of rabbis and judges. His father was a judge. In childhood he
was educated in Jewish law and general sciences. In 1148 Cordova
was conquered by the Almohads. Because of the fanaticism of these
rulers, who forcibly converted the Jews to Islam, the family was forced
to wander for about ten years among the southern cities of the Iberian
peninsula. In 1159 the family settled in Fez, which was also under
Almohad rule; there too they had to keep their Judaism in secret. In
1165 they left by sea and arrived in the land of Israel. They stayed
there about half a year. After the fathers death they settled in Egypt.
Maimonides was supported nancially by his brother who traded in
jewels. After his brothers death Maimonides supported himself through
his medical practice. He regarded it as forbidden for scholars to earn
a livelihood from Torah; it was incumbent on them to learn a marketable skill. Thus he became one of the most renowned physicians of
his generation, and was appointed as physician in Saladins court, a
position that won him great inuence in the community.

A Universal Personality: Legal Authority, Communal Leader, Philosopher

Already in 1171 Maimonides was appointed leader of the Egyptian
Jewish community, serving in that capacity until 1177 and again from
1195 until his death in 1204. His formal authority was limited to Egyptian Jewry, but he engaged in general and legal correspondence with
the Jewish communities from Yemen to the southeast as far as Spain
and Germany to the northwest. He was recognized as the leading
halakhic authority of his generation, thus being invested, in effect, with
the authority of the Geonim, the presiding ofcers of the Babylonian
yeshivas of a prior era. It is worth emphasizing that Maimonides sought
through his many-sided literary activity to ll the vacuum that was


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created as a result of the dispersion of Jewish communities to remote

lands from that center, and the consequent decline of Geonic authority.
The key to his lifes work is the emergent need to create a practical
substitute for that bygone leadership, so that the Jewish people should
not become fragmented for lack of a central authority.
This was a critically fateful time, as Maimonides understood full well.
He possessed the rare combination of talents required to create the vital
alternative. This explains the warm admiration that even his opponents
accorded him. In his own time, Moses Maimonides was already regarded
as the successor to the biblical Moses, and after his death it was said
that from Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses.
Maimonidess unique genius was expressed in the fact that he united
in his personin rare perfection and marvelous balancethe two
universal legacies that comprised Western civilization in its highest
manifestation at that time: the monotheistic religious legacy that prevailed in the social and political sphere, and the Greek scientic and
philosophical legacy that prevailed in the cultural sphere. Between these
two components of the high culture of the Mediterranean countries
there existed an internal tension that carried the constant threat of
conict and collapse. The survival of these cultures was dependent on
nding a modus vivendi between them. Moslem and Christian philosophy
took on this fateful task, and Maimonides assumed the same task in
the Jewish realm. Since the Jewish scriptures stood at the foundation
of Christianity and Islam, Maimonides was engaged in intellectual
dialogue with both these cultures, and his inuence on them was far
from negligible.
Synthesis of Tradition and Philosophy: A Source of Controversy
Maimonidess intellectual project was revolutionary in its scope. This fact
was at the source of the two controversies that it provoked: on the one
hand between him and his opponents, and on the other hand among
his interpreters. Some saw him as restoring the Torahs integrity. Others
saw him as bringing about a profound schism in the Jewish people. The
Maimonidean controversy led to a major parting of the ways in the
understanding of Judaism. It ran its course for the rest of the Middle
Ages, and its effects have been felt even in the modern period.

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


Survey of Principal Works

The best introduction to Maimonidess teaching is a survey of his
principal works. It is possible to list the categories of his writings,
although it is not always easy to decide in which category a particular
work belongs, for they overlap.
Medical writingsAs we said, Maimonides was a renowned physician.
He composed several works in this area. He had some important new
ideas, particularly in the realm of preventive medicine, but on the
whole his medical works offer a clear and systematic summary of the
prevailing tradition.
LettersThe second category worth mentioning is the many letters
that Maimonides wrote as the communal leader of his generation.
Some of his letters are essentially independent essays on fundamental
halakhic issues on the communal agenda of the day, for instance the
Epistle to Yemen that dealt with the issue of Messianism; the Letter
to the Sages of Marseilles, that dealt with education; the Letter on
Apostasy (or Martyrdom), that dealt with the status of forced converts;
and the Letter on Resurrection, that dealt with a theological topic that
was philosophically very problematic. Nevertheless, these letters form a
distinct genre that stands midway between philosophy and halakhah,
and they testify to Maimonidess rare ability to speak to different sectors
of the community in a language that each of them can understand.
Some hold that Maimonides said materially different things to different
audiences, depending on their intellectual level. I do not believe that
this view is correct. The things that Maimonides said in the Epistle of
Yemen to simple folk, he also said to the enlightened and the scholars.
He did address each audience in its own language, in accordance with
the rabbinic dictum, the Torah speaks in human language. Thus he
exhibited the rare gift of a true spiritual leader.
HalakhahThe third domain is halakhic writings, in which one
should include his Commentary to the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah,
and his halakhic responsa. However, the rst two also touch directly
on speculative matters. We shall deal with the relationship of his
philosophical and halakhic views from our perspectivei.e., from the
philosophical side.
PhilosophyWhat, indeed, are the Maimonidean works which deal
directly with philosophy? We have rst his early work Explanation of
Logical Terms (Beur Millot ha-Higgayon), which is a clear summary of the
theory of Aristotelian logic as it was understood by the later interpreters


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of Aristotle (Alfarabi and Avicenna), meant as a guide for beginners in

the study of philosophy.
Second, there is the Commentary on the Mishnah. (This book was
written originally in Arabic, and translated twice into Hebrew, most
recently by R. Joseph Kah.) This book was also known as the Book
of Enlightenment, a term of endearment given by its students. This
book was intended foremost as a commentary in the straight sense,
but its philosophical implications are interwoven with the halakhic
discussion. It is generally Maimonidess intention in his commentary to point out
the consistency between truth, as conceived by the philosopher, and the words of the
sages. To that purpose, Maimonides devoted several prefaces to selected
chapters of the Mishnah:
1. His general introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah,
which forms the opening to the Order Zeraim. In it, Maimonides
articulates his approach to the tradition of Oral Torah, the status of the prophet in the halakhah, the methods of interpreting
the words of the Sages, and the logical plan of the Mishnah.
His words here set forth important principles for understanding
Maimonidess political philosophy.
2. Maimonidess preface to Mishnah Sanhedrin Chapter 10
(elek Who Has A Portion in the World to Come), in which
Maimonides deals with the question of the nature of the afterlife,
and gives the rst classic formulation of the principles of Jewish
3. The preface to Tractate Avot, which took on a life as a separate
work under the title Maimonidess Eight Chapters. It is Maimonidess
highly inuential attempt to demonstrate the consistency of the
Aristotelian and rabbinic views in the eld of ethics.
The Book of Prophecy and the Book of Correspondence
By his own account, Maimonides planned to write a series of works
in which he would demonstrate through interpretation the consistency
between philosophy and the Torah. The prefaces in his Commentary
to the Mishnah were to be just a rst layer, in which he discussed the
least problematic partethical and political philosophy. It was easy
here to demonstrate the similarity between the authority of halakhah
and the authority of the Platonic state, or between Aristotles golden
mean and the opposition of the rabbis to the extremes of asceticism

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


on the one hand and hedonism on the other. However, difculties came
up regarding theoretical issues that went beyond applied philosophy.
These did not t the agenda of the Commentary of the Mishnah, and
Maimonides contented himself with promising to write afterwards two
works, one to be called the Book of Prophecy and the other the Book
of Correspondence. He intended in these works to explain in detailed
fashion the words of the prophets and the sages in a manner compatible
with the truth that Maimonides understood as a philosopher.
In the end, Maimonides changed his mind. He explained his reasons
in his introduction to the Guide to the Perplexed. They are important for
understanding the tension underlying his whole thought. Maimonides
perceived a great danger in dealing openly and in detail with the
philosophical interpretation of the Written and Oral Torah. Such an
open and detailed discussion would reveal to the non-philosopher the
material contradictions between true philosophy and the simple sense
of the words of the Torah and the rabbis. This would lead either to
contempt for religious scriptures or rejection of philosophy as heretical.
Either of these outcomes would have been harmful in Maimonidess
view, and he wished to prevent them, for Torah is the foundation of
political life, and philosophy is the goal of life altogether. Therefore
he changed his original plan and committed himself to writing his two
greatest and most important works: the Mishneh Torah (Review of the
Law) and the Guide of the Perplexed.
The Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed
Maimonidess two greatest works are very different in their content,
their method of composition, their language, and their intended audience. In content, the Mishneh Torah is a halakhic work that aims to
summarize the Oral Law as it had developed up until Maimonidess
time. The Guide of the Perplexed is a theoretical and exegetical work that
aims to demonstrate the ways in which the views of the Torah can be
reconciled with the philosophical views of Aristotle.
In form, the Mishneh Torah is a paragon of order, whose plan is easily grasped and user-friendly. By contrast, the Guide of the Perplexed is
purposely labyrinthine. It has a plan, to be sure, but one calculated to
conceal Maimonidess philosophical method and the underlying unity
of its positions, and to reveal it only to one who succeeds in breaking
the code through study.


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As to language, the Mishneh Torah was written in Hebrew and the

Guide in Arabic. Finally as to the intended audience, the Mishneh
Torah was written for Jewish scholars of the traditional type who were
well-versed in the written and oral Torah but had no philosophical
education, whereas the Guide was intended for Jewish scholars who
had philosophical education and wished to advance further in that
area. Certainly the difference in language derives from the differences
in content and audience. Hebrew was the natural language of choice
for halakhic presentation, for it was the principal language of the
traditional halakhic sources, and still is. Philosophy was more readily
communicated in Arabic, which was the language of the speculative
literature available to Maimonidesthe Arabic translations of Greek
philosophic works, and the original works of the Arabic philosophers.
It stands to reason that we have here two works that were intended to
fulll very different missions, and apparently they represent two different
dimensions in Maimonidess spiritual world. Nevertheless, Maimonides
sought to integrate his spiritual world, not to compartmentalize it. His
writing was devoted to that purpose: to harmonize philosophy with
the Torah. If this is so, then these two very different works must have
a common denominator.
Theological Dogma within the Law of the Ideal State
Indeed, it is not hard to nd the connection. First of all, even in his
halakhic work Maimonides set aside a special place for a summary of
his theological views, at the very outset of the work. The Mishneh Torah
starts with the Sefer Ha-Madda, the Book of Knowledge, which is
entirely devoted to explicating the true doctrines that the Torah teaches.
The justication here is similar to that in Baya Ibn Pakudahs Duties
of the Heartbefore summarizing practical obligations, one must rst
dene the obligations of faith, or more precisely the obligations of
knowledge, by which one enters the world of the Torah. This stipulation raises a delicate problem from the philosophical perspective. One
can command actions, but is it possible to command knowledge and
ones understanding of the truth?
We shall deal with this problem later. For now, we will simply note
that by prefacing faith-obligations to practical obligations, Maimonides
is being consistent with his political views, which were inuenced by
Plato. Maimonides assumes that the Mosaic Torah represents the law
of the ideal state, whose purpose is to realize the human ideal: attain-

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


ment of eternal truth, and a life consistent with that truth. In order
for all the states citizens to live in prospect of the realization of this
goal, every one of them must partake of that truth to a degree keeping
with his station and abilities. We should emphasize that in the Book of
Knowledge Maimonides did not present a philosophical formulation of
the eternal truths, but only a dogmatic formulation. In other words,
these matters are not presented as a series of proofs proceeding logically
from assumptions to conclusions, but only as cut-and-dried propostions
which summarize the bottom line. Such a presentation is proper for a
legislator, and Maimonides makes this distinction knowingly and intentionally. The philosopher as legislator must express himself dogmatically, for a
proper philosophical presentation will not be understood by the masses. If we said
earlier that the Mishneh Torahs systematic method extends to doctrines
as well, we should now clarify that the system here is dogmatic rather
than philosophical. The work presents doctrines in order of importance,
but does not derive them logically from one another.
In any case, the differences between the Mishneh Torah and the Guide
highlight their common denominator: both works advance knowledge
of philosophical truth, but by different methods. Thus in the Mishneh
Torah we do not only nd certain philosophical views expressed, but
we also nd that the writing of the work is based on philosophical
assumptions that are elaborated in the Guide of the Perplexed.
The Mishneh Torah as a Halakhic Work
Understandably, these words need qualication. Maimonides did not
write the Mishneh Torah in the same spirit as Plato wrote his Laws. In
his formulation and systematization of the halakhah, Maimonides is
dependent on halakhic sources more than on his theoretical principles.
But rst of all, Maimonides tried to justify this very dependence on
the basis of his own method, and to justify on that basis his preference
for the legislation of Moses over any other legislation; and secondly,
despite that dependence, it stands to reason that Maimonidess philosophical stance determined quite a bit of his method of exposition
of the laws of the Oral Torah. Despite Maimonidess avowed delity
to the halakhic sources which he followed both as to general principle
and the detail of the law, the Mishneh Torah constituted a great revolution
in the history of halakhic literature. The controversy which it aroused
is testimony to this fact. How was it revolutionary? In two ways: (1)
Maimonides sought to derive systematically laws which in the tradition


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were presented as cut-and-dried. (2) Maimonides cites these laws in

his work without referring to their sources, and without presenting the
process of deliberation which preceded his decisions.
Whoever pays attention to the classic literature of the Oral Law
Mishnah, Talmud, the commentaries on these works, and the Codes
will take note of the sharp departure here. Rather than simply setting
forth legal decisions to guide practice, the literature of the Oral Torah
presents deliberations and arguments to be studied. These are theoretical
rather than practical works; therefore they record different views. When
they come to make legal decisions, they cite sources and set forth their
rationale. This is certainly not accidental. It expresses a religious ideal
quite characteristic of rabbinic Judaismthe ideal of Talmud Torah (the
study of Torah), which is a supreme religious value. If Maimonides
departed from this mold, it is surely because his conception of this ideal
underwent change, in respect of content and intellectual method. We
nd this expressed in a clear distinction between two kinds of Torah
wisdom: (1) ordinary Torah wisdom, dealing with religious law; and
(2) the true wisdom of Torah, dealing with eternal truths. Based
on this distinction, Maimonides argues that the injunction to study
it day and night applies to Torah wisdom not in the ordinary, but in
the philosophical sense.
Guide to the Perplexed: Reconciling Torah and Philosophy
Whereas the Mishneh Torah is addressed to the student of ordinary
Torah wisdom, the Guide of the Perplexed is addressed to the student of
true Torah wisdom. The students of the rst type are not yet perplexed. Only one who has progressed beyond halakhic Torah-study
to philosophy is perplexed by the contradictions he encounters, and
therefore requires guidance as to how the oppositions can be reconciled.
To such a reader is the Guide to the Perplexed addressed. It seems to offer
a reconciliation. But we have already seen that Maimonides saw a
great danger in dealing openly with these issues. There is no danger,
understandably, in openly dealing with either Torah or philosophy
separately, for the oppositions are not yet evident. But dealing with
both together reveals them.
Is this danger not aroused by the very writing of the Guide? Indeed
yes. But Maimonides tried to control it through his method of composition. Instead of a detailed commentary, he provides only keys;
instead of a systematic exposition, he builds his book as a masterpiece

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


of obfuscation. How did he come by this method, which has no analogue in Christian or Muslim philosophy? According to Maimonides,
he followed the example of the Torah and the prophetic books, and
clearly so. In any case, Maimonides read the Torah (and imitated it)
as to the way that it reected philosophical truth in its presentation,
though it is evidently not philosophical at all. The illuminations of
eternal truth are found among many matters that seem irrelevant to
it, and occasionally among matters that seem to contradict them. Only
one who knows how to piece together these illuminations and to reinterpret the apparently contradictory passages through a sophisticated
exegetical method, whose rules are learned from oral tradition, arrives
at the deeper truth. Maimonides imitated this method in his book, but
for the opposite goal of deciphering the riddle, for the truth that he
concealed turns out to be the true philosophical interpretation of the
Torah itself !
The Importance of Religious Law: Ordering Individual and Social Life
The preference for true Torah wisdom is not meant to denigrate the
ordinary kind that is familiar to the traditional scholar. Maimonides
dedicated the best of his life to the traditional learning. All the time
that he had not nished writing the Mishneh Torah, he was not free to
write the Guide. We may deduce that he considered the halakhic law
the one and only way to arrive at the goal of truth. To be sure, he
assumed that the halakhah was the means and philosophy was the goal,
but whoever has internalized the teaching of the philosophers knows
that man, unlike God, is always on the way to the eternal truth. It is
impossible to arrive at the goal, but only to approach it. In that respect,
the essential thing is to be on the right road. In that case, halakhah is
the rst stage of the road to the truth, and without it we shall never
get to the second stage. Moreover, the road is not divorced from the
goal but ows from it, for only thus can it lead to it. This, at any rate,
is the importance of halakhah as a religious law: it shapes all a persons
way of life in such fashion that he can approach the true goal to the
best of his ability.
Moreover, in this notion of the task of halakhah, the obligation
of gifted individuals to approach the eternal truth is directed at all
members of their society, for they all participate in enabling the conditions required for arriving at the truth: they must all take care that all
members of society may approach the truth to the best of their ability.


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For that reason one must teach it in a way that it will be understood
by everyone to the best of his ability. Halakhah is the instrument that
makes this possible. In that case, in his book Mishneh Torah Maimonides
discharged his obligation to his society to pave for all its members the
way that he himself traveled to arrive at his goal.
The Mishneh Torah: The Republic and the Laws
These considerations help us to dene the place of the Mishneh Torah in
the context of Maimonidess philosophical system. If we compare him
with Plato, whose outlook he followed, we may see the Mishneh Torah as
combining the functions of Platos Republic and his Laws. In that sense,
the Mishneh Torah is not at all external to Maimonidess philosophical
project, as most modern scholars argue, but the opposite: it is an organic
part of the system. Only in this way can we properly understand the
revolution that Maimonides wrought in writing his major halakhic work.
His purpose was to present the halakhah as a systematic whole, which
served both to educate the people and to enable its teachers to rise
above preoccupation with halakhah as if it were study of Torah for its
own sake, and to enable them to fulll their role as rabbis and judges
without it suppressing their progress toward the true spiritual goal.
The Source of Tension in Maimonidess Thought
Maimonidess method of writing the Guide to the Perplexed reveals the
tension that characterizes his thought. What caused it? The difference
between the literal sense of the Torah and its philosophic truth does
not exhaust the matter, for the tension is found not only between the
Torah and philosophy, but within philosophy itself. There is an opposition between dogmatic indoctrination, which is a requirement of
education and practical duty, and philosophical enlightenment, which
is not bound in advance to any authority beyond the rules of logic,
which are not above reason but ow from it. Halakhic instruction
is authoritative and dogmatic. Philosophic instruction recognizes no
authority but logic. But dogmatic indoctrination seems necessary for
the goals of philosophical instruction. How can this contradiction be
resolved, either from the dogmatic or the philosophic standpoint?

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Differences with Kalam

Raising this conict to philosophical consciousness constitutes the fundamental difference between Maimonidess Aristotelian outlook and
the thinkers of the Kalam. The thinkers of the Kalam philosophized
on the basis of the Torah from the assumption of the complete agreement of Torah and rational inquiry, an agreement which ordinary
students can comprehend, and not only the select few. Therefore they
wrote their book for the broader public, and not only for the select few.
Maimonides cannot assume complete agreement, for his philosophy
is not based on the Torah. He learns philosophic truth from its own
proper sources, and from that standpoint he then comes to reconcile
it with the Torahs words. Inevitably there develops a powerful tension
between the Torah and philosophy, one which the previous systems of
thought did not perceive.
Maimonidess Relation to the Previous Tradition of Jewish Thought
This train of thought leads to the problematic conclusion that we
cannot arrive at the true understanding of truth through the ordinary
study of Torah. This implies a radical break with the tradition, which
raises the question of the relation of Maimonides to his predecessors
in Jewish thought. However, this question has two aspects: (1) How
did he conceive the relation between sacred traditional literature and
philosophical inquiry? (2) To what extent was he inuenced in fact by
the philosophical works of his predecessors? We will attempt to answer
these questions separately.
The Relation between Tradition and Philosophy
Maimonides derived his essential philosophic views from the works
of Aristotle and his commentators, especially the Arab commentators
Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Ibn Bajja (Avempace). He clearly recognized the
non-Jewish source of his views. However, we will fail to appreciate his
way of thinking if we do not recall that despite this, he saw philosophical
inquiry as an authentic part of the original Jewish tradition. Furthermore, this
assumption was a fundamental assumption of his world-view, and it is
indissolubly linked to the interpretation he gave of the essential identity
of the Jewish people and of its Torah. Therefore it is worthwhile to
elaborate somewhat on these matters.


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As an Aristotelian, Maimonides was remote from Judah Halevis

version of the Chosen People idea. He believed that the Patriarchs
and especially Moses were extremely gifted intellectually, and that the
Torah of Moses represents a unique intellectual accomplishment. But
he thoroughly rejected the notion that there was a material, ontological
difference between the Jewish people and the other peoples of the world.
The Jews for him were simply people like anyone else. Their uniqueness
consisted in their recognizing truths that other nations did not recognize, which God chose to reveal to them in his Torah. This is, if you
like, a material difference. Nevertheless, Maimonides does not deny the
uniqueness that is found in the history of the People of Israel. According to
Maimonides Abraham, the father of the nation, arrived with his own
intellect at the recognition of the monotheistic truth. Having arrived at
it, he went on his journeys and converted people to his way of thinking.
Exceptional individuals from various peoples, who were able to arrive
at recognition of the truth, ocked to his banner, and so there came
into being a tribe of philosophers. This unique event stood in good
stead for the people of Israel, who would thereafter have recognition
of the truth as their special inheritance. This is a philosophical-elitist
version of the idea of chosenness, which serves as background for
understanding the unique achievement of Moses. This man, who was
revered in Israel as Rabbenu (our Teacher/Master/Rabbi), and as
the greatest of the prophets whose like never did or will arisewas
indeed the lord of the sages, the greatest philosopher in history, who
gave the ideal law to his people. Therefore the people that observes
this law in its entire way of life is a truly chosen people.
Given these assumptions, all subsequent events of Jewish history are
the episodes of a conict between a nation dedicated to Torah versus
the gentiles who live by the laws of an idolatrous faith. It is an inevitable conict, for the true religion challenges the verity of the pagan
faiths. It aspires to a future in which the kingdom of God will hold
sway over all humanity. Thus in his Epistle to Yemen Maimonides
distinguished between three principal stages in this struggle: (1) The
attempt to destroy Israel and its Torah by force (the period of the
First Temple, culminating in the Babylonian Exile). (2) The attempt to
refute the true religion through pagan philosophy (the Second Temple
period). (3) The attempt to expropriate Israels heritage through plagiarizing imitation in the form of the quasi-monotheistic false religions
of Christianity and Islam (Maimonidess time). Maimonides described

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


here an evolution that denes by stages the trials that the Jewish people
must undergo, which is at the same time a stepwise evolution of the
propagation of truth among the gentiles, for even an imposter of the
true religion brings about some absorption of its values. The larger
task of the Jewish people in the ongoing trial of sanctifying the divine
Name is to reveal the lie and falsity of idolatry. That is how we should
understand Maimonidess sweeping statement that whoever denies
idolatry is considered as if he has fullled the entire Torah.
We see from this account that Maimonides regarded philosophy as
an internal Jewish tradition. Philosophy is not originally a gentile invention, though the pagan gentiles perverted it in order to refute Judaism;
rather it was conceived by the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. Just
as there is an Oral Torah in the halakhic realm, so too was there a
philosophical tradition in Israel which was not taught publicly to all,
but was communicated privately to properly qualied individuals, from
teacher to student. This is how Maimonides understood the Mishnaic
notions of Secret of Creation and Secret of the Chariot: Secret
of Creation is the science of physics, and Secret of the Chariot is
the science of metaphysics. It was halakhically forbidden to teach these
matters in public or to put them in writing, in case they should come
into the hands of unqualied people. No wonder that these traditions
became lost or garbled in the circumstances of the exile! By this (to
us strange) series of assumptions Maimonides justied his attempt to
reconstruct the lost or garbled tradition and put it down in writing in the
Guide to the Perplexed. He deliberately overrode the halakhic prohibition
but justied it as a temporary exigency, because the loss or corruption
of the esoteric Torah tradition was worse than the danger that some
might err on account of it. Nevertheless, he tried to write it in a way
that would approximate as much as possible the communication of a
teacher to individual students who had proved their mettle.
In our view, Maimonides wrote the Guide of the Perplexed as written
lessons to a private student, who had started to study with him in person
but was forced to travel abroad. He implicitly addressed all those who
had the qualities and prior preparation of his student. In the sequel,
he cautioned that his lessons were written in a manner that only those
students who had studied and understood both the lore of Torah as
well as the sciences and philosophy, would be able to decipher their


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Maimonidess Relation to His Jewish Predecessors

Maimonides may justly be regarded as the founder of a school of
thought, and as such he subjected his predecessors to severe criticism.
He was equally critical of the general philosophical literature of his
own day. Maimonides accepted the Aristotelian philosophers and
rejected sharply the other schools: the varieties of Kalamic thought and
mystical Neo-Platonism. Since most of his Jewish predecessors were to
be counted within these two schools, he wrote in opposition to them.
He expressed his views denitively in a famous letter to the Hebrew
translator of the Guide, Samuel Ibn Tibbon: he did not regard them as
philosophers, though he recognized their stature in other areashalakhah, medicine, poetry. Reading their theoretical works was to him
a waste of time and mental obfuscation. They validated his argument
that the circumstances of exile had caused the tradition of esoteric
speculative Torah to be forgotten, and that one needed to reconstruct
it with the help of superior philosophical writings, that meet the highest
standards of logical reasoning. One should start on the foundation of
logic. (Indeed, Maimonidess rst work was a primer on logic.)
Nevertheless, Maimonides refrained from attacking explicitly the
Jewish Kalamic thinkers that preceded him, particularly R. Saadia
Gaon, and contented himself with a general critique of the Kalamic
school. He did not want to criticize the Geonim of Babylonian Jewry,
especially R. Saadia, because of their revered authority in the domain
of halakhah. He did not want a disparagement of their philosophical
competence to lead freethinkers to challenge their halakhic authority. A
close reading will show that he often criticized specic views of Saadia
vociferouslyfor instance, his making proof of creation a key foundation of his proof of Gods existencewithout mentioning his name.
This is the most striking example, but it is not unique.
Nevertheless, Maimonides did not break completely with his predecessors, just as he did not accept without qualication the Aristotelian
tradition that had come down to him. On several issues where the
Kalam reected Torahitic positions that Maimonides also regarded as
essential, he accepted their position and distanced himself from the
Aristotelian position. Examples of this are his position on creation, on
afrming the divine will, on miracles, and to some extent on providence.
Moreover, on several issues Maimonides offered, in addition to his primary philosophical position, a more moderate position reecting the
standpoint of non-Aristotelian theologians. He was willing to tolerate

maimonidess personality & oeuvre


such a position, despite its lack of philosophical precision, as long as

it did not commit the sin of anthropomorphism. An example of this
is the doctrine of the divine glory as a medium of prophecy.
It follows from all this that Maimonides took an independent stance
as a religious philosopher. Though he accepted the Aristotelian method
generally, he did not refrain from parting ways and criticizing it when
he saw it as conicting with the truth of the Torah.




General Introduction
It follows from what we have said that Maimonides wrote his books
intentionally in a pre-planned order. He progressed from Torahitic
treatises with a philosophic goal in view, to philosophic treatises that
refer to Torah. It will therefore make sense to discuss his books in the
same order.
We start with his commentary to the Mishnah. The general introduction tells us little about Maimonidess philosophy. Nevertheless, it
is worth summarizing its primary ideas:
1. Establishing the authority of the Oral Law as equal to the Written Law.
2. The unique, non-recurring nature of Mosess legislative prophecy. From here on, no prophet has any halakhic authority in his
capacity as prophet. On the contrary, the halakhah determines
what is true and false prophecy.
3. The highest attainment of mankind is intellectual perfection.
Culture exists for its sake, and society is dedicated to creating
the conditions for the activity of the philosopher, who fullls its
purpose in his life activity.
In that case, why did the rabbis say that God has nothing else in this
world but the [four-cubit] domain of halakhah? According to Maimonides, this should be understood as a means to the end-goal. When
the entire society observes halakhic normsi.e., the commands of
Godthen privileged individuals can come to knowledge of Him.
How should one interpret the aggadic saying of the rabbis which
appear strange and unenlightened? Maimonides deals more explicitly
with this question in his Introduction to Sanhedrin Chapter 10, where
he distinguishes three approaches to these sayings. The rst is that of
the ignorant, who accept the rabbinic saying literally. The second is
worse than the rst, for it is that of the self-styled wise who reject

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


the rabbinic sayings because they mistakenly think they are to be taken
literally. The third is the correct view, of those who recognize that these
sayings have an exoteric and an esoteric meaning and keep the latter
to themselves, for it is fruitless to expound to the masses a truth which
they cannot grasp.
What is the guiding plan of the Mishnah? Maimonides assumes that
the Mishnah has a logical structure, embracing all topics of legislation
in correct topical order, as bets a divine legislator. He deduces from
this that the rst purpose of this legislation is to establish a social order
that extends to ethical and religious perfection. This is the background
for the next topic, to which he devoted his second introduction.
Introduction to Sanhedrin, Chapter 10 (elek)
The introduction to Chapter elek, in which Maimonides rst formulated his theory of the principles of Judaism, is devoted for the most
part to explaining the meaning of the concept, a portion in the World
to Come. This association of ideas has its source in the very text he
is interpreting (Sanhedrin 10:1), which rst asserts that all Israelites
have a portion in the World to Come, and then goes on to enumerate those who have no portion in the World to Come: He who says
the Resurrection is not from the Torah, or that there is no Torah from
heaven, and the Epicurean. From these three heresies enumerated
in the Mishnah, Maimonides deduces three categories of obligatory
faith-principles which amount to thirteen principles in all. However,
in the course of his discussion Maimonides develops an independent
train of thought.
Five Traditional Jewish Understandings of World To Come
Maimonides starts by enumerating ve schools of thought pertaining
to the understanding of World to Come: (a) Material reward in a
material world. (b) Material prosperity transcending natural causes in
our world. (c) Bodily resurrection. (d) Return of the exiles and restoration of the Davidic dynasty by natural means. (e) All of these in
One sees readily that there is a progression here from views that
Maimonides rejects to those that he nds acceptable. (Resurrection
is very problematic from a philosophical standpoint, but since the
halakhah mandates this belief, Maimonides accepts it as a miraculous


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fact.) However, in the course of the discussion, Maimonides establishes

that each of these views can nd supporting evidence from scriptural
verses or rabbinic sayings, understood in their literal sense. He does
not explicitly state which of these views is true or mistaken. Instead,
he raises a new question directed at all of them: Is the reward spoken
of here the purpose of serving God according to the Torah, or is it
perhaps only a means to the end?
We may deduce that on the one hand Maimonides will not bring
himself to negate any of these views utterly and unequivocallynot
even the rst, which is apparently so repugnant to his way of thinking. On the other hand, he is not ready to accept any of them at face
valuenot even the fourth, which is so much in agreement to his way
of thinkingbut only conditionally. The dialectical character of his
thought here is striking.
Why cannot Maimonides reject any of these views out of hand?
Because each has a basis in the Torah and in the sayings of the rabbis. And why can he not accept any of these views unambiguously?
Because each conceives of reward as an extrinsic consequence of the
fulllment of the mitzvot, not an intrinsic result. A payoff cannot be
ones true just desert. In a philosophers view, only the attainment or
botching of human perfection can be proper recompense.
The truth of the matter is that true recompense is that eternity which
is acquired through attainment of eternal truth, and this is a persons
share in the World to Come. Punishment consists in forfeiting this
eternity. Understanding the true wisdom of Torah brings about the
actualizing of human intellect from its potential state, and this is the
recompense that is embodied in the commandments themselves. Maimonides cannot accept any of the views mentioned earlier, because
none of them points explicitly to this notion.
Understanding the Traditional Views
Nevertheless, Maimonides does not totally reject any of them either,
and this for a good philosophical reason: they may all be regarded as
the means to that same end. Some can be regarded as a means to an
end in their literal sense, and others only in a gurative sense. In this
way, each of the scriptural and rabbinic sources can be explained.

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


Views Literally Accepted

Let us rst consider the views which Maimonides accepts literally,
namely the third and fourth. The third view, though it is philosophically
problematic, he accepts as a dogma. He cannot disagree with the explicit
dictate of the Mishnah, nor will he treat a halakhic pronouncement
as merely gurative. This is a line he cannot cross, for if one dared to
interpret laws guratively, one would undermine the authority of the
Torahitic imperative irreparably. Maimonidess view here is identical
with Platos political philosophy, even though the content of the halakhah is problematic. In that case, we do not know how this promise
will be fullled, and there is no reason why we should puzzle out the
details, but it is important that we should know that this miracle is not
the end-goal for whose sake we live, but only a means toward achieving
it. By contrast, the fourth view is easily compatible with a philosophical
standpoint. As we saw earlier, the achievement of human perfection
is conditioned on the existence of well-ordered social conditions that
tend toward that goal. These are identical with the laws of the ideal
statethe Torah republicwhose purpose is to further the bodily and
spiritual well-being of all its citizens. The Torah promises that in Messianic times, the Jewish commonwealth will be renewed on the basis
of Torah (which is the ideal law), and its citizens will then be able to
achieve their destiny and perfection.
Views Accepted Not Literally but Figuratively
We will now consider those views which Maimonides cannot accept
literally. The key for understanding these is given in the parable cited
later in the introduction: When one is a child, they encourage him
to learn by promising him sweets, etc. In this parable, the child at
each stage takes the end-goal (the ideas he is acquiring) as a means to
receive a reward, and he takes the means (the extrinsic reward) as an
end-goal. However, his teachers intention is the opposite: to exploit
the childs natural but mistaken inclination as a means to advance him
toward what is truly good for him. Similarly, the Torah in its literal
words presents people with an external reward which is but a means
to the true reward, because at the start of their journey people are not
able to appreciate the value of the true end-goal, and if they were told
that it is incumbent on them to learn because that is their purpose,
they would not learn at all.


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These words contain a dialectical tension that borders on the paradoxical. The literal words of Torah teach views that are not true, in
order to serve the higher truth! Is this not purposely deceptive? Does
reason permit such a procedure?
But Maimonides will answer that there is no deception here, but
rather a gurative concretization of the truth, in the manner of the
saying, the Torah speaks in human language. The Torahs words
are not to be taken literally. The descriptions of sensual pleasure are
only a parable of the spiritual delight which comes from knowing the
truth for its own sake. If we interpret the Torahs promises not literally but as parables for spiritual fulllment and delight, then the truth
proclaimed by philosophy and by the Torah are fully compatible. We
should emphasize that in Maimonidess view it is necessary to teach
the non-philosophers as well that the promises of sensory pleasure in
the Garden of Eden or physical punishment in Gehenna are only a
parable of a pleasure or suffering beyond imagining, which they will
only fully appreciate when they have progressed in their learning from
the stage of extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Therefore Maimonides
directed the sharpest criticism at those nave preachers who were lavish with their pictorial descriptions, which they presented as the literal
truth, thus leading the people into error. It is only permissible to present descriptions which allude guratively to the truth, and to present
them honestly as such. In that case, what purpose do they serve? The
answer is as follows: The ordinary person cannot conceive of spiritual bliss. If
we wish to have an effective inuence on him, we must use sensual imagery, or he
will remain indifferent and we will fail to achieve our goal. We must avail ourselves of sensual imagery. Moreover, when the listener knows that this
is only imagery and allusion, he will nevertheless grasp what he is able
to graspnamely, material delight. But he will not be led into error, for
he will know that what he has grasped from the Torah is only an allusion, and he will realize that beyond the sensory dimension are domains
of spiritual experience that he cannot yet grasp. There is no harm in
this, if through what he does grasp he comes to the performance of
the mitzvot and study of the Torah, through which he will merit the
truth and (on his level) a portion in the World to Come.
In this way, all the views which Maimonides enumerates are incorrect
if they are understood literally as the end-goal, but they are correct if
they are grasped guratively as a means. Furthermore, ordinary Jews
will understand the end as means and the means as end, but they
should know that their comprehension is incomplete. Accomplished Jews

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


will understand that what was thought to be means is end, and what
was thought to be end is only means. The same ambiguity reappears
immediately after in Maimonidess formulation of dogmas.
The Role of the Thirteen Principles: Attaining a Portion in the World to Come
Why does Maimonides mention his theory of dogma here? One may
respond on the basis of the previous: If knowledge of the truth is
ones portion in the World to Come, then these 13 principles, which
encompass truth in its religious formulation, are themselves the end-goal
to which all should strive. Knowledge of them is ones portion in the
World to Come. If one asks, why does the denier of Torah-from-heaven,
Resurrection, and Gods existence have no portion in the World to
Come?the simple answer is: These truths are themselves the portion
in the World to Come, and whoever denies the one forfeits the other.
But we shall see that Maimonides was not satised in positing the immanent reward in the act of knowledge, but he established a legal-political
sanction in addition: Acknowledging the 13 principles is a condition
of belinging to the Torah-republic, represented by the community of
Israel. Whoever denies them is ostracized from that society.
But this political determination raises a major difculty: Can one command correct knowledge the same way that one can command correct behavior? Can
one compel oneself to regard as true something which he intuitively
thinks is untrue? By the Aristotelian epistemology to which Maimonides
adhered, the answer is negative. It is possible to teach, to demonstrate,
and to persuade someone, but it is not possible to command belief.
Commandment can direct the will to search for the truth to the best
of ones ability, but this is up to the conscience of the individual, and
a religious institution can only command public profession of principles
that are a condition for membership. If Maimonides established the 13
principles as obligations of faith, it must be in this sense: The citizen of
the state must profess to believe what is laid down as the foundation of his state.
This is a condition of the existence of that ideal state, whose task is to
aid him and direct him toward the realization of his lifes purpose.
But in this way we are led to another problematic ambiguity: Maimonides presents the 13 principles as the truth which is the end-goal
of humanity, yet he exploits their formulation as a means to inuence and educate people so that they should wish to progress toward
their attainment! Maimonides is aware that whoever knows the truth
does not need to be commanded, for he cannot think otherwise.


chapter eight

Whoever is in need of commandment does not yet know the truth,

even if he repeats the words and professes them. Can one say that one
attains his portion in the World to Come by mere profession? Epistemologically, the answer is no. But Maimonides declares otherwise: all the
community of Israel have a portion in the World to Come. Knowledge
of the Torahitic truth resides in the community of Israel, and every
individual who chooses to be a part of that community by fullling the
commands of the Torah wholeheartedly, has earned his place in the
World to Comeeach according to his ability and his level.
The Thirteen Principles
In keeping with the Mishnahs tripartite formula, Maimonidess 13
principles fall into three groups: general theological principles, Torahitic
principles, and political principles:
Theological Principles
1. The knowledge that there is a God, who is the cause of all existence, but who transcends it and is independent of it.
2. The knowledge that God is one and sui generis.
3. The knowledge that God is incorporeal (and that all the material
gures of God in scripture are not to be understood literally).
4. The knowledge that God is primordial, i.e. prior to every existing
thing. (This does not mean temporal priority, as God transcends
time, but causal priority and priority of rank.)
Torahitic Principles
5. That only God is properly to be worshipped. This denition
brands as idolatrous any worship directed at the beings that are
intermediate between God and the terrestrial-human realm, such
as the angels or the celestial spheres, inasmuch as they are only
intermediaries, and even on the supposition that we were unable
to address God because of His transcendence. Worship is to be
directed only to God. We should remark on the thematic connection between this principle and the preceding. The formulation of
the fourth principleknowledge that God is primordialappears
superuous in itself, since the afrmation of Gods absolute priority
is only a reformulation of the rst principle, which afrms Gods

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


existence as the independent cause of existence of those beings

caused by Him. Rather, the fourth principle is intended to lay
a foundation for the fth principle. Gods priority explains why
it is only proper to worship Him, even if He is beyond human
6. The sixth principle is also related to the fth, but makes the
contrary statement that intermediaries are required for relation to
God: in order to worship God properly, it is necessary that there
be prophecy, which consists of receiving a divine ow to the
human intellect. This is possible only through intermediaries.
However, in the act of worshiping God, one must direct ones
thoughts only to God, in the knowledge that between us and God
is an unbridged gap. By making this distinction clear, we avoid
the danger of drifting into idolatry.
7. The faith in the prophecy of Moses, which is superior to all the
prophecies which preceded or succeeded him. Here Maimonides
adds an extended digression on the four features which distinguish
Mosess prophecy from all other prophets:
(a) He prophesied without an intermediary.
(b) He prophesied during the daytime in a state of total wakefulness.
(c) He prophesied without betraying any trace of physical weakness or fear-and-trembling.
(d) He prophesied whenever he wished.
Maimonidess lengthy treatment indicates that this principle was important to him not only as an essential link in the current argument, but
in its broader context. In general, Maimonides expressed himself at
greater length when he was responding to opposing views. Thus he
expanded on the issue of Gods incorporeality, because some of his
contemporaries wanted to understand prophetic gures of speech
literally, or at least did not regard such interpretations as heretical.
Similarly he expanded the argument here in order to refute Christians
and Muslims and to establish Mosess Torah as a unique, absolute gift
which remains unsurpassed.
8. The eighth principle is the belief in Torah from Heaven. Here
too Maimonides expands to clarify his intention. The command
is to know that the entire Torah as we have it in hand is a divine
product. Moses received it prophetically, and he put it down in
writing in the manner of a scribe writing from dictation. This


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formulation is important, for Maimonides wants to exclude the
view that the Torah was handed to Moses in written form. This
is an essential distinction. He wishes to emphasize that Moses
was not a passive intermediary, but an active agent. The Torah
came about through Mosess mediation. This means that indeed
it was given by God, but it was receivedi.e., it was understood
and explicated, in human language by a human being. This has
implications for the understanding of the nature of the Oral
Torah as well.

Indeed, Maimonides emphasizes that everything written in the Torah,

including the narratives, came from God and did not originate with
Moses. Therefore, whoever maintains that a particular part of the
Torah was written by Moses of his own volition, is considered a heretic. Everything is from Sinai, and everything is essential. Moreover,
every utterance in the Torah hints at marvelous insights intended for
the initiated.
This leads to a third idea, that the received commentary on the
Torah, namely the Oral Torah, was communicated to Moses at Sinai,
and has the same authority. It is easy to infer that the length of these
remarks hints at controversies in the community. From this point on,
the formulation is brief:
9. The Torah of Moses is of divine origin, and therefore allows
of no addition, subtraction, or change.
Principles of Reward and Punishment (Political Principles)
10. God knows all deeds of humankind.
11. God gives reward to those who fulll His commandments, and
punishes the sinner.
12. In Principle #12 Maimonides expands, again because of current
controversy, on the coming of the Messiah, which he interprets
in his fashion, and expresses strong opposition to calculating the
date of redemption.
13. Finally, the belief in the resurrection, which despite its problematic character in Maimonidess thought he propounds without
adding any explanation. The brevity may suggest that this belief
dees philosophical explanation.

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


The Order and Structure of the Principles

What guided Maimonides in selecting his principles? We have already
given part of the answer. Each principle is a link in a chain. The
emphases and expansions respond to opposing views. There is also a
negativity in the formulation that is characteristic of Maimonides, for
he seeks to dene error and thus come to a clearer understanding of
the truth.
A deeper understanding of the principles requires further examination
of their tripartite structure, which reects the Mishnaic formulation:
1. The rst group consists of the theological principles. These comprise a connected series, whose religious signicance is summarized
by the last principle: the exclusive worship of God. This group
corresponds to the Mishnaic statement that whoever denies Gods
existencenamely the Epicureanhas no portion in the World
to Come.
2. The second group comprises the Torahitic principles, which are
connected to the rst group through the belief in prophecy, and
establish the Torahs authority as commanded. This group corresponds to the Mishnaic statement that whoever denies Torah
from Heaven has no portion in the World to Come.
3. The third group comprises all matters of reward and punishment.
This recalls the preceding discussion concerning the meaning
of a portion in the World to Come. Both are related to the
Mishnaic statement that whoever denies that the Resurrection is
proved from the Torah, has no portion in the World to Come.
How the Principles Relate to Philosophy and Common Sense Understanding
We have so far demonstrated how the Thirteen Principles parallel the
tripartite formulation of the Mishnah. But they follow an interesting
logical progression in their philosophical implications as well.
In the rst group, there is complete identity between the Torahitic
formulation and their philosophical content. Philosophy and Torah
are in agreement here. But we see also that Maimonides emphasizes
the erroneous views that are negated by these principles: God is not
immanent in nature, God is not multiple or composite, God is not
material, intermediaries may not be worshipped. This is because a
non-philosopher will understand the negative formulation, though he
may not fully appreciate the positive.


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The second group may have some connection with the Aristotelian
theory of prophecy, but it is not subject matter for philosophy per
se. It cannot be veried or falsied philosophically. These principles
establish religion as an autonomous discipline on the basis of revelation. We emphasize the importance of the idea of prophecy in
Maimonidess thought, for it is the connecting link between philosophy
and religion.
Finally we have the third group of principles, which in their plain
sense are clearly unacceptable to Aristotelian philosophy. Yet precisely
here we nd the principles which he discussed in the whole rst part
of this Introduction, namely reward and punishment. We may say that
the principles in the rst group comprise ones portion in the World
to Come in the philosophic sense; the second group deals with the
means to bringing people to that truth; and the third group provides
the motivation by which the Torah gets people to avail themselves
of those means. But for the simple believer, means and ends are
reversedacknowledgement of the principles in the rst two groups
is the means for acquiring the reward promised in the third group. For
the simple, the reward is the main purpose, whereas from the Torahs
viewpoint the reward is merely an incentive to the purpose of knowing the truth.
In other words: the third group is justied for the philosopher as a means to
the higher goal of truth, and indeed in the Guide Maimonides speaks of these
principles as politically necessary beliefs. The belief in reward is necessary
for the ordinary people who live by the Torah, as an incentive for their
fullling the commandments.
Are these necessary beliefs also true, in Maimonidess view? This is a
question on which the opinions are ercely divided. Some voice the
extreme view that Maimonides saw it as politically necessary to lay down
principles which he disbelieved. I see this view as without foundation
and unlikely. It is more correct, in my opinion, that Maimonides gave
a popular formulation to propositions which have a more complex
philosophical interpretation. If he had presented these matters in their
philosophically correct formulation, with the necessary demonstrations,
they would not have had the desired political effect. Therefore he
spoke in human (popular) language, though in a manner transparent to philosophic understanding. In other words: In his opinion, this is
the truth insofar as the general public can understand it. This is an application
of the pedagogical approach that he advocated in the example given
above. A precise conceptual formulation will not be understood by the

maimonidess earlier philosophical writings


masses, and may lead them to err, whereas a simplied rendition may
give them at least a supercial understanding. If they are told that it
is a simplied presentation, they will not be in error, but will be led
toward the truth.
Agenda: Politics, Psychology, Ethics, Prophecy, Theology
The introduction to Sanhedrin Chapter 10 is the rst step that Maimonides takes toward the philosophical truth. Maimonides presents
the next step in the third of his Introductions in the Commentary
on the Mishnah, namely the Introduction to Tractate Avot (Ethics of
the Fathers), which is also known as the Eight Chapters. In this
introduction he enters the domain of philosophy properly speaking,
dealing with topics of which everyone has experience and background
for understanding, namely psychology, ethics, and the implications of
both for politics and theory of prophecy.
In expounding on these, we shall draw on the whole gamut of
Maimonidess writings in order to expand on the concise presentation
that he gives in the Eight Chapters.



Platonic Theory of the State1
Though Maimonides adhered generally to the Aristotelian philosophy,
he followed Plato in his political theory. This may be because Aristotles
Politics had not yet been translated into Arabic. More importantly, Platos
political theory was more compatible with his Torah-based outlook.
Plato and Aristotle shared the common assumption that man is a
political creature by nature, in the sense that he cannot survive outside
society, and more especially he cannot survive as man outside society, for
the highest human perfection is enlightenment, and he cannot achieve
this perfection outside of society.
Maimonides stressed two aspects of mans dependence on society.
The rst is functional: Man cannot survive as man outside society: in that sense
it is natural to him.
Second, Maimonides strongly emphasizes societys intellectual purpose: Society exists so that those who are capable shall arrive at apprehension of
the truth. Intellectual perfection is not just an individual achievement, but
rather a collective achievement in which intellectually-gifted individuals
express the aspirations and purpose of society as a whole.
Mans Egoistic Nature Requires Political Subordination
Though man is by nature a political animal, human beings do not
congregate readily and naturally in orderly herds as many lower animals do. People vary widely in their preferences and characteristics,

Schweids discussion of Maimonidess political theory follows closely the argument
of Leo Strauss in Philosophy and Law. See also Shlomo Pines, The Philosophic Sources
of the Guide of the Perplexed, in Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, University of
Chicago, 1963, Vol. I, pp. lvicxxxiv. However, Schweid dissents from Strausss thesis of
the predominance of Maimonidess esoteric views in Persecution and the Art of Writing.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


and they do not acknowledge authority readily, but tend to rebel against
it in pursuit of their individual happiness. But an orderly society cannot
survive without acknowledging authority and submitting to leadership.
Indeed, Maimonides made the principle of authority central to his
political theory. This is the basis of his insistence that the Mosaic law
is eternally valid and unchangeable, and that the prophets who came
after Moses are subject to his laws and may not change them.
Politician and Prophet as Legislators
It follows from this that human society requires legislation and means
of enforcement that will induce individuals to obey the constituted
authority. This is the justication for the existence of the state. But
how is it to be established? Maimonidess second assumption is that to
elicit obedience, a quality of leadership is required, with which certain
individuals are especially endowed, who are conscious of their calling.
Looking at historical reality, he deduced that the existing states were
established by one of two kinds of leadership: political or prophetic.
A politician is a person possessing practical (as opposed to theoretical)
wisdom and imaginative capabilities which give him a consciousness
of mission and the power to inuence people. Through his practical
wisdom, he understands better than the common people the conditions
of social reality and the ways of coping with them. Through his sense
of mission, he persuades the masses, who suffer from lack of security,
order and stability, to follow him and accept his laws. The driving
motivation for him and his followers is of course the pursuit of material
advantage and bodily satisfaction; such is the purpose of those states
that are established by politicians.
The prophet, on the other hand, is endowed with all the qualities of
the politician, but additionally with the theoretical-intellectual quality of
the philosopher. He is an emissary of Godthe emissary of religious
truthand his purpose is to bring people to spiritual perfectiontheir
portion in the World to Come. He establishes an ideal state that aims
at achieving material prosperity as a means to spiritual perfection,
which is the true fulllment. Maimonides availed himself of Platos
notion of the philosopher-king, but he accommodated it to the Torah:
Moses is the legislator and ruler who established the ideal republic by
the strength of his mission.


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Purpose of Laws: Benet of the Community

We shall emphasize here another important principle in Maimonidess
political theory: the law should operate for the benet of the community, not just of the individualbe they one, many, or all individuals.
I have already said that the intellectual perfection of the elite individuals is regarded by him as a fulllment of the human community. This
justies their focusing their efforts on his behalf, to educate him and
enable him to reach his perfection. But by the same token, the perfect
individual is obligated to lead the community, and the ideal law that
he gives them is directed at the good of the community, even at the
occasional expense of individuals. In this manner Maimonides explains,
for example, the matter of the apparently cruel conduct of Moses in
the episode of the Golden Calf, and more generally the vengeful and
harsh treatment of idolatry. Idolatry impinges not only on the human
perfection of its practitioners, but of the whole human community of
which they are a part; therefore the representatives of the community
are required to uproot it entirely. In the same vein Maimonides explains
why the laws of the Torah should not be changed even when their
benet is not apparent, even when they are an encumbrance and an
annoyance in changing times. In Maimonidess view, the laws of the
Torah are applicable in an ideal sense for the community as a whole,
i.e. for most of the individuals most of the time. Therefore it is proper
to keep it in its given state.

Aristotelian Psychology
If Maimonides tends toward Platonic views in politics, he follows Aristotle in psychology. He rejects the notion that the soul is a separate
immaterial entity, forcibly attached to the body though not a part of
it. He rejects the ethical conclusions which follow from such a view (for
although Plato himself was far from ascetic teachings, his psychology
underlay the ascetic tendencies of the medieval world). In contrast to
this view, Maimonides accepted the Aristotelian denition of the soul
as the perfection of the material organism, composed of faculties which serve as
instruments for the functions of life. In another formulation: The soul is

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


the form of the body, from which originate the activities of the various faculties. By this conception, one cannot differentiate in practice
between body and soul. They comprise one whole. The body without
a soul is no living body but a corpse, whereas the soul without a body
is nothing. This notion is opposed to asceticism, for the soul cannot
achieve its perfection by aficting the body. But this notion of bodysoul reciprocity would seem at rst sight to rule out the survival of the
soul after death, not to mention bodily resurrection. We shall have to
deal with this issue later.
Emphasizing the Souls Unity
The ancient philosophers agreed in noting that man embodies in
his life three levels of activities: some which parallel the functions of
plants, others which parallel those of animals, and a third level that
is unique to human beings. Maimonides agreed with Aristotle against
Plato that one need not posit a separate soul for each of these domains
of activities. It is a single human soul that distinguishes humans from
plants and animals and performs these functions by means of distinct
bodily organs. He uses the analogy of how three dark places can be
illuminated variously by a candle, by the moon, or by the sun. The
common task of illumination is thus performed in three different ways.
The plurality of functionsthe vegetative, animative, and humanis
achieved by the differentiating medium of the body, with its various
organs. We may update the analogy by referring to an electric current
which performs various functions through the different appliances that
are attached to it. From a single source we can heat water, bake bread,
light or heat a room, etc. This notion of a unitary soul in relation to
the body assumes the Aristotelian denition of the soul as the form
of the body.
The Aspects of the Soul
Once the relation of soul to body has been determined, there comes
a more detailed discussion of the parts of the soul, or rather its
essential functions. Here too Maimonides follows Alfarabi, the Arabic
commentator on Aristotle, and presents not Platos threefold division
but rather Alfarabis vefold division: the nutritive, sensitive, imaginative,


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emotional,2 and rational3 faculties. We shall consider each of these

faculties as it relates to our investigation of Maimonidess doctrines of
ethics and prophecy.
The Nutritive Faculty
The nutritive faculty comprises those faculties of the soul which have
their parallel in plants: growth and reproduction. Maimonides does
not describe them at length, because they are of medical interest, that
is to say, one can affect them only by acting directly on the physical
organs, and therefore the human will can only govern them indirectly.
Nevertheless, Maimonides does not belittle the importance of medical care, and in his ethical doctrine he includes principles that bear
on preserving the proper functioning of the nutritive faculty.4 Physical
health is a prerequisite of human perfection in his view.
The Sensory Faculty
The sensory faculty comprises a function parallel to that of animals. We
speak of sensation as a characteristic that distinguishes animals from
plants. As the animal is capable of locomotion, the animal requires
these senses to aid its growth and reproduction. Through them, it
attains a higher level of existence and aspires to a higher purpose. This
teleology is reected in the gradation of the senses themselves. Just as
the soul is one though its activities are many, so too sensory perception
We translate ha-koa ha-mitorer as emotional faculty (and occasionally motivating faculty) rather than appetitive faculty. Emotional is used here in the original
etymological sense of initiating motion, and is quite distinct from feeling. Emotion
is the connecting link between sensation and action. Emotion focuses on the active
aspect of this transition, whereas passion (a word not in Maimonidess vocabulary)
emphasizes its passive aspect. In Maimonidess view, when we act irrationally we are
not the victims of alien passions, but the authors of our own misfortunes, deluded by
our imaginations. There is an obvious genealogical link between Maimonidess view
of emotions and Spinozas (see Spinozas Ethics, Parts 34). Each sees training the
emotions as the path to ethical progress. (LL)
Rational and logical are synonymous in this discussion. The Hebrew medabber
(from davar = word) is etymologically parallel to the Greek logikos (< logos = word).
Greek and medieval philosophers identied reason with the ability to use words to
identify concepts. Linguistic and conceptual ability are the distinguishing traits of the
human species. With the possible exceptions of the borderline cases of use of signlanguage in chimpanzees and obedience to verbal commands in higher animals, these
distinctions are still largely valid.
See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ethical Qualities, Chapter 4.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


is one functional activity which is expressed variously by the different

organs, ranging from the lowly and diffuse to the higher and clearer.
Sight is the most noble of the senses, while the sense of touch is the
most common. Why? Because sight grasps things from a distance and
embraces whatever is present to us; therefore it most resembles intellectual apprehension. Touch experiences only what is directly closest,
and even that thing not in its entirety. Moreover, the pleasure involved
in seeing is contemplation of beauty, which is spiritual, whereas the
pleasure of touch is of a bestial variety. In other words, the sense of
touch represents the satisfaction of the nutritive need directly, as if it
were derived straightway from it, in contrast to the spiritual contemplation of sight.
But it is of interest to note that Aristotle is ambivalent on this issue. In the Ethics he praises sight and denigrates the sense of touch. But in De Anima
he establishes the primacy of the sense of touch which is identied in
practice with the life-giving faculty, for it cannot be negated without
negating life itself. He identies the superiority of humans with the
renement of their sense of touch. Maimonides is oblivious to this
ambivalence. He gives unequivocal preference to the sense of sight.
We shall see later that his difference from Aristotle on this issue has
implications for their moral philosophies.
The sensory modalities comprise a point of origin for the next two
mental functions which humans also have in common with animals: the
imaginative and emotional faculties. This also follows from the nature of
sensory perception. It has a passive aspect: the external world impresses
itself on the sensory organs (even sight is to be explained on this model).
But it also has an active aspect: the soul grasps this impression and
responds to it with sympathy or antipathy. Imagination presents more
purely the passive aspect of sense, and the emotional faculty its active
aspect. Let us consider this now in more detail.
The Imaginative Faculty
Imagination in its primary sense is the impression of the perceived
object on the senses, which persists even when the object is absent. It
is analogous to the impress of a sealing-stamp on wax or other material, which preserves the form a shorter or longer time depending
on the properties of the substance. This persistence underlies several
important features of mental functioning. First of all, imagination makes
memory possible. The act of memory calls forth an image and presents


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it to thought. Secondly, imagination makes conceptualization possible. Inasmuch as the senses mix images in a constant ow, they cannot isolate
a single impression, analyze it, or abstract its essence. Thirdly, imagination makes predictive judgment possible, for the connection between certain
images from the past creates the possibility of imagining the future,
and this constitutes prediction. Fourthly, imagination has a creative aspect.
To be sure, Aristotle and (following him) Maimonides determined that
imagination comprises only what is in the senses, and adds nothing
new by itself. But it can put together combinations of images that were
not found in reality. This process can lead to error. But if it is done
in a principled and purposive way, it can serve creative processesof
tools, structures, artistic works. It is of interest that Maimonidess son
Abraham, in his commentary to the Eight Chapters, stresses the creative
function of imagination in the invention of tools, though neither he
nor his father deals with its creative function in the artistic realm. The
reason for this becomes clear in retrospect. According to Maimonides,
the prophet is distinguished by having a strong imaginative faculty, which
enables him among other things to enter into understanding with common people in order to lead and instruct them. He accomplishes this
by combining bodily impressions that are familiar to ordinary people
from sensory experience, conforming to some principle, and thereby
creating an image that expresses metaphorically concepts that have no
sensory embodiment in and of themselves, such as God, angels, and
the human soul. Moreover, the imaginative faculty plays an important
role in predictive judgment. We shall need to treat all these matters in
greater depth later.
On the other hand, one must emphasize the dangers that arise from
the imaginative faculty. It misleads, for it does not preserve the sensory
impression exactly, and when it combines impressions randomly and
without respect to some rational principle, it leads to much strange
nonsense. Madness has its source in the dominance of the imaginative faculty.
As we said, the imaginative faculty is a further development of the
passive aspect in sensory perception. The emotional faculty, representing
the various feelings, represents the active aspect. Through it the person
responds to his environment, being either drawn to it or repelled by it.
It is therefore of great importance for ethical theory.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


The Emotional Faculty

The emotional faculty is the souls response to reality, as it encounters
it through the senses and imagination. It is rooted in sense itself, inasmuch as a sensory experience conveys not only information about the
perceived object but also pleasure or pain derived from it. Pleasure
and pain are already a kind of reaction, or a pre-reaction expressed
in attraction or repulsion, sympathy or antipathy. It is important to
bear this in mind, for Maimonides later determines that the domain of
ethical obligation encompasses the emotional faculty and the sensory faculty that is
subservient to it, and it is the relationship of the emotional and sensory
faculties that explains this judgment.
But we must remark now on an important difference between the
emotional faculty and the preceding. We said that the nutritive faculty
gives no occasion for free choice. The same applies to the sensory and
imaginative faculties. We have no control over a mental image as such,
though we can make intelligent use of it once it is formed. Nor do we
have control over sense perception as such. Neither the data gathered by
the senses nor the pleasure and pain associated with them, are subject
to choice. All these are the immediate result of external stimuli. But
with the emotional faculty there is a difference. To be sure, sympathy
and antipathy are based on the automatic reexes of pleasurable or
painful sensations. But it is possible to regulate them through conscious
direction of ones bodily movement. This fact enables one to prevent
the triggering of the pain, or to endure it in accordance with ones
Our ability to choose between suffering pain and avoiding it, serves
as the foundation for a second level of choice, between what is objectively good or evil. If we conclude that an object that causes us pain is
nevertheless useful to us because of its consequences, we may choose
it. This choice is exercised by our reason, but it is based on the activity
of the emotions, because in human beings there is no necessary causal
connection between a sensory response and the decision to act according
to its dictates. The will enters as a mediating factor between them.
We may describe the psychological process as follows: feeling generates pleasure, and pleasure sympathyi.e., a positive relationship. But
once the person has the memory of this sensation, it is possible that
alongside this attraction to the source of immediate pleasure will also be
awakened the memory of a greater suffering that was caused as a result


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of the same pleasure. The result will be a conict. According to Aristotle, such a conict is also generated among animals, but among them
the resolution is automaticthe stronger tendency prevailswhereas
in human beings the matter is carried to the deliberative process of
practical reason, from which the response follows.
This analysis leads us to the Aristotelian denition of the will. The
will is not identied with the emotional faculty, although it is associated with it, and its criteria are rooted in sensation. The will itself is
a function of the practical reason. It is expressed in the decisions that
follow on deliberation in response to emotional impulses.
In the preceding we have already touched on the fth faculty of the
soulthe logical (< Greek logikos, speaking = Hebrew medabber) or rational. We see that in this stage too is a transition marked by continuity.
Indeed, Maimonides distinguishes between two activities of the reason, continuous
with the twofold hierarchy we have described previously.
The active aspect, which proceeds from feeling through the emotional
faculty, is manifested in the activity of practical reason. The passive aspect,
which proceeds from feeling through the imagination, is manifested in
theoretical reason.
Practical Reason
What is the dening task of practical reason? It distinguishes between
good and evil in order to direct human action through deliberation.
Memory presents, for each stimulus, an image of the results that ensued
from responses to such stimuli in the past. Practical reason evaluates the
proper response by weighing these consequences. It weighs the benets
of immediate gratication against the possible long-term harm, and
against the general social consensus of what is desirable and proper.
Since every action affects the specic properties of changing entities,
it is impossible to determine universally infallible rules of conduct,
whether prescriptive or proscriptive. Only the accumulation of much
experience reduces error and enables probable correct judgment of
the propriety or impropriety, possibility or impossibility, of a given
action. Practical reason also evaluates the suitable means for realizing
goals. It thus plays a part in the practical arts and technology, which

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


according to Aristotle are included not in theoretical reason but rather

practical expertise.
Theoretical Reason
By contrast, theoretical reason is pure reason, which distinguishes
true from false. It includes the sciences and philosophy as methods of
knowing for its own sake. This knowledge constitutes the actualization
of human reason from its potential state. Since according to Aristotle
intellect is the human essence, its actualization is a persons very life.
Therefore acquisition of knowledge of eternal truth is achievement of
the goal of human existence, which endows its possessor with timeless
eternity. Maimonides accepted this view, though as a Jewish philosopher
he added such actions as benet others and bring them also to the
perfection of knowledge. Thus man walks in the ways of God, whose
perfection is expressed in His relation to creation and humanity.
Intellect as the Souls Form
The immortality that ensues from the perfection of knowing the truth
is of supreme religious importance. This leads us back to the topic of
the souls survival. Therefore it is proper to probe deeper the question
of the essence of the faculty of theoretical reason. The question that
occupied many Aristotelian thinkers in the middle ages is: Is reason
simply one of the various mental faculties, or does it have a unique
status by virtue of ruling over the other faculties and constituting their
end-goal? This is a critical question, for if the intellect is only one of
the souls faculties, and its action is conditioned absolutely upon the
physical organs (the senses and the brain), then it will perish when the
body dies, the same as all the other faculties of the soul.
Maimonidess determination that the soul is unitary and that the
intellect is one of its functions tends at rst sight to agree with this
view. But in his subsequent argument we see a Neoplatonic turn.
Maimonides suggests a distinction between the human intellect in its
potential state (the ability to understand, rooted in the senses, imagination, and memory) and in its actual state (the totality of knowledge
of truth that a person has acquired). The potential intellect is indeed
only one of the souls faculties, but when the intellect becomes actual,
it attains the higher status of an independent spiritual being, no longer


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dependent on its bodily organs. In Aristotelian terminology: Just as

the human body is a material substance whose form is the soul, so the
soul is a material substance whose form is the intellect. In this way, the
intellect is conceived both as a faculty of the soul and as an essence
transcending it. It is able to exchange its original dependence on the
bodily organs for a spiritual dependence on the intellectual knowledge
that ows from the divine thought.
The Actualization of Reason
This view is supported, in Maimonidess view, by a substantive difference between the maturation of animals and human beings. Animals
are born with the full complement of their mental faculties: the nutritive, sensory, imaginative and emotional. A human being is also born
with all these faculties. An infant is already capable of growing, feeling, imagining, and displaying emotions. But the infant lacks reason.
He knows nothing. Like an animal, he has the potential of knowledge
and thought, but the actualizing of this ability depends on continued
development through learning.
This process points to the special status which distinguishes reason
from the other human mental faculties. It also points to the duality which
is part of human existence. Manalone among animalsis not born
with his identifying features. He must make himself into that which
he is destined to be. His perfection consists in a task that is assigned
himto develop his own ethical and intellectual personality. This fact
is of crucial importance for understanding Maimonidess ethical and
religious philosophy.
However, let us go back and complete the structure. The child is
born as potentially rational. In medieval terminology: he has a hylic
intellect. In what does the hylic intellect consist? What supports this function?
The answer is: those mental faculties which condition consciousness:
the senses and imagination. For senses and imagination are knowledge
in potential, for we know nothing except by means of them. The child
who deploys his senses and imagination starts to learn, and through
that learning is manifested the actuality of reason in its rst stage. He
forms concepts for those objects that he encounters. Still, we have far
from exhausted the notion of hylic intellect. Other animals also have
feelings and imagination, yet they are not rational beings. If a person
learns through them, it follows that his senses and imagination possess
a unique quality. This is a characteristic example of the ambiguity of

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


the term potentiality in the Aristotelian system. It refers at once to a

things absence and its genesis. Just as the eye before it begins to see has
the potential of sightits possibilitybut actually has the capability of
seeing, so too the mind before it becomes rational has the capability of
knowing. This capability is foreshadowed in certain patterns of recognitionaxioms and premisesof which the child is at rst unaware,
but once his knowledge and thought reach certain critical proportions,
they rise to consciousness.
In summary: The ability to know, which is carried in the senses,
the imagination, and in the primitive constructs of logical thought, is
hylic intellect. When a person learnswhen he forms concepts of the
objects he encountershe achieves the rst aspect of active intellect.
Maimonidesfollowing the example of the Arabic commentators on
Aristotlecalled this natural reason.
The Final Process of Enlightenment, Highest Goal of Humanity:
The Acquired Intellect
The natural intellect, perfection of the hylic, still has not achieved
independent existence. It depends on the sensory impression, and it
stands in relationship to material individuals that are changeable. On
this level it is permissible to speak of reason as one of the ve faculties
of the soul. But this is only a transitional stage. In every knowledge that
is based on experience of material entities, there is implicit a higher
conceptual knowledge that cannot be derived directly from experience,
but rather from logic, which is the very essence of the intellect. This
knowledge pertains to intellectual objects that transcend materiality.
When the human intellect focuses on the knowledge of such objects, it
becomes like them: pure and eternal, independent of material vehicles.
This is what Maimonides (again following the Arabic commentators on
Aristotle) calls acquired intellectthe intellect that a person acquires
by activation of his natural intellect, and through which he ascends to
the state of eternity.
Achieving Eternal Knowledge
We may well ask at this point how a person can achieve this crucial
knowledge. Does metaphysical knowledge subsist potentially in our rst
natural knowledge, so that it is possible to derive it by means of reasoning? When we consider this question carefully, it becomes clear that the


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process of derivation is a vital issue. We are led to the conviction that

natural objects have a source that transcends nature, and our thoughts
become focused on that source. But to know this, we must rise to a
higher level and comprehend it in its essence. Such comprehension is
possible only if the metaphysical object be made present to the student
tangibly in the same way as natural essences are present to the senses.
In short, where does metaphysical knowledge come from?
The answer given by Aristotelian epistemology is that we learn the
concepts of things that we always experience from someone else who
already knows them. We are familiar with this fact from the process of
learning in school: the teacher transmits to his student the concepts that
he is familiar with, and every teacher learns from a previous teacher.
But one can conceive new concepts, and this fact is evidence that at the
basis of the process of instruction there is a continual ow of conceptual
understanding from the Active Intellect, conceived either as the divine
intellect (by Aristotle) or as an intellectual entity mediating between
God and man (according to the medieval philosophers). Through this
process, human beings grasp the truth. It may be compared to the
light owing continually from the sun, through which people are able
to see. Acquired intellect is thus the individuals internalization of the
intellectual ow that emanates from the Active Intellect.
The Meaning of Immortality: Intellect as Mans Eternal Part
Apparently it is proper to explain here: if we said in our discussion
of Maimonidess dogmatic theology that mans portion in the world
to come is knowing the truth, we have here the fuller explanation
of this statement. When the human intellect identies with eternal
truth, it becomes eternal. But this has far-reaching implications for
Maimonidess theory of prophecy. The prophet is the one who achieves
perfection of the acquired intellect. The revelatory aspect of prophecy
is the emanation or ow that ows from the separate Intellects to the
human intellect. Moreover, true worship of God is identied with
achieving the acquired intellect, and ethics is also enlisted as a means
to the same end-goal.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


Ethics Deals with the Souls Perfection
From Maimonidess psychology we derive the basic assumptions of
his ethics. First of all, what did ethics mean for Maimonides? It did
not mean, primarily, the regulation of interpersonal relations, which,
though supremely valuable, was the domain of politics. Ethics deals
rather with the good and perfection of the individual, especially with
those virtues whose possession brings about harmony, wholeness,
and happiness.
Ethics deals primarily with the souls perfection. Just as the bodily
physician must be expert in the human body to know wherein its health
consists, so must the spiritual physician be expert in the soul to know
what is its health. To be sure, Maimonidess spiritual healer is not
identical with the modern psychiatrist, nor is his notion of spiritual
illness the same as our mental illness. In any case, Maimonidean
ethics deals with perfection of the soul, i.e. the proper exercise of all
the psyches faculties insofar as this is dependent on human choice.
The Object of Ethical Discourse: Habit or Virtue
From the previous assertion, the next follows: Ethics is primarily interested in a persons actions as indicators or formative causes of that
persons moral state. Since a person has free will, it is possible that he
will act out of various motives without each action revealing his moral
disposition. The ill-tempered person can occasionally act patiently, and
vice versa. Ethics is not interested in the character of the isolated act.
It is interested in the souls long-term disposition, its basic constitution.
It is the supreme goal of ethics that a man not merely do good deeds,
but be himself good.
Let us then dene, what is a moral virtue. According to Maimonides, a moral virtueas distinct from inherited dispositions on the
one hand, and from voluntary actions on the otheris a set disposition
to act in a particular way, i.e., a characteristic that has been acquired by
repeated action. Everyone is born with dispositions that are conditioned
by his biological inheritance, that cannot be effaced or reversed. But
they are not compulsory, and it is possible to restrain them through
voluntary decisions that build up contrary habits. Thus a person may
be predisposed to anger or patience, rashness or cowardice, because of


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the balance of humors that affect the emotional faculty. But these are
biological tendencies, not moral dispositions. If the individuals act on
them repeatedly, they may turn into moral dispositions. It is likewise
possible to prevent this outcome through voluntary decisions to create
contrary habits, though this would require a sustained effort.
In short, a moral virtue or vice is a kind of second nature or acquired
nature, rst of all from the inuence of ones social environment that
sets norms of conduct, and later through self-education. Whoever
acquires this nature is good on his own account, good always, whether
he is active or in a state of rest. We can count on him whenever he
is called on to act, that he will do the proper thing. We should recall
what we said about the human beings uniqueness as an intellectual
creature: unlike other animals, the human being does not display his
essence in his instinctual actions, but in those traits that he has acquired
through social education and self-education. He is a creature who is in
a process of continual self-formation.
The Domain of Ethics: The Emotional Faculty and the Senses that Serve It
Which of the previously discussed psychological faculties fall within
the domain of ethics? Ethical judgment applies directly only to those
behaviors over which we exercise choice. This criterion excludes the
nutritive faculty from ethics and puts it in the category of medical
hygiene. Similarly with the imaginative faculty: we exercise no voluntary control over our imagination (especially while we are asleep).
The senses also operate automatically; we cannot control what we see,
hear, or feel.
It turns out that ethics deals directly with the emotions. Inasmuch as
emotions consist of reactions of pleasure or pain to sensations, ethics
deals indirectly with the sensitive faculty as well. But this formulation
is not unproblematic. Is it indeed possible to transform the reactions
of the sensitive and emotional faculties, or to control them? Is it not
more correct to say that ethical virtue resides in the practical reason,
by which a person judges good and evil? Maimonides answers this
question in the negative. Aristotelian ethics assumes that the will is
always oriented towards the good. Indeed, there is no one who does
not desire what is useful and benecial for himself. There may well be
a misguided will, but the notion of an evil will is meaningless. In that
case, whence does error arise? We must conclude: from desires, passions, and impulses. But these are all functions of the emotive faculty.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


When this faculty functions in a disordered and misguided way, when

its yearning for imagined pleasures overwhelms real material needs, or
when it shows exaggerated distaste for things truly needful for a person,
then it is necessary to correct its predilection by inculcating correct
habits, so that it shall be attracted to the truly desirable and repelled
by the truly harmful in the appropriate measure. Maimonides clearly
assumes that a person has the power, through voluntary choice, over
the formation of the emotional faculty itself.
The Emotional Faculty
We should add here, however, that through the emotional faculty ethics
touches on the constitution of the proper action of the other mental
faculties, to the extent that the deployment of these faculties is indirectly
conditional on the satisfaction or denial of emotional impulses.
For example, it is impossible to exercise direct voluntary control on the
process of digestion, which belongs to the nutritive faculty. Nevertheless,
one can affect it through eating or fasting, which are activities under
the direction of the emotional5 faculty. Therefore the rules of health
maintenance are an integral part of Maimonidess ethics, especially
with respect to preventive hygiene.
Similarly we cannot exercise voluntary control over sight or the other
sensory modalities, but directing the senses and coordinating impressions
are both voluntary activities of the emotional faculty. We can train our
senses to function better.
We can similarly inuence the coordination of the senses and the
Moreover, although to be sure we cannot command our theoretical reason, our readiness for knowledge of the truth depends on the
inclinations of the emotional faculty, for one possessed of excessive
appetites will not successfully free himself for the contemplative life,
whereas restraining those appetites can strengthen the will and the
ability to learn.
Recalling the original etymology of emotional in the sense of activating motion,
being the link between sensation and action. Here is the exception where appetitive
would seem the apt translation of mitorer. Yet it points up how it is not the biological
appetites over which we have moral control through training, but the psychological
constructs of desire and sentiment that are developed on their foundation. It is more
plausible to regard training of the emotions as the moral task, rather than training
of the appetites.


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The Supreme Goal of Humanity: Developing Theoretical Reason

We come nally to determining the purpose of human life, which is
also based on psychology. As the human soul is one, so the purpose of
ethics is to preserve the souls unity despite the multiplicity of activities whose source is in connection with the bodily organs. This means
preserving harmony among the various mental faculties. Harmony is
unity amid multiplicity. As the quality that gives denition and unity
to the soul is the intellect, it follows that the intellect should turn out
to be the principle that determines the harmony of the parts of the
soul and rules their actions, as well as the nal purpose of all those
activities. But let us assert once more that the nal goalknowledge
of eternal truthtranscends the knowledge of good and evil that
guides ethical discourse. Thus one should see ethics as just a means
to a higher end.
The Nature and Cause of Evil 6
We previously discussed ethics as an empirical question, but it raises
two metaphysical questions that are crucial to its very possibility: (1) the
origin of evil in human life, and (2) the question of free will.
In Chapter 12 of Part III of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides
lists three causes of the evil which plagues human beings in this life.
The rst is the evil which they experience because of the material
nature of their existence. This includes their physical vulnerability, their
being subject to illness, pain and death, various natural catastrophes,
etc. These are evils that cannot be avoided. Maimonides believes generally that nature is oriented to the welfare of living beings, that it is
preponderantly for the good. This can be argued from the fact that
the more benecial the elements are to life, the more abundant they
are. For example, air, water, food. But nitude is part and parcel of the
nature of the terrestrial world. To wish that man not be vulnerable to
suffering, illness and death is to wish that he not be human.
The second cause is evil that is caused by mans awed social nature,
such as war and hatred. These are evils that human beings inict on
each other.

See Guide III, 912.

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Maimonides responds to these in the same way as to natural disasters:

they cannot be prevented, but one can take protective measures against
them; the more perfected a society is, the better it protects against them.
However, it is not possible to prevent them because they are part of
human nature. Eliminating such evil would again be a contradiction
of the human condition.
The third class of evils is evils that a person perversely brings on
himself through his own deciencies: lack of proper deliberation,
uncontrolled urges, deception of the imagination, and the like. These
bring individuals to consider what is harmful benecial, and cause
others and themselves great suffering. In Maimonidess view, the great
preponderance of evils of which human beings complain as if they
were Gods responsibility, stem from this source, and people have only
themselves to blame for them.
It is precisely this third class of evils that reveals the general source
of all evils in nature: all result from the fact that natural creatures as
such are not perfect. They have many and varied defects, and the more
developed and complex they are, the more defects they have. As man is
the most highly-developed and complicated creature, so are his defects
more numerous and grave. It is well known that human beings are more
highly differentiated from each other than other living species. As they
are differentiated precisely by their deciencies, so it is no surprise that
they harm each other a great dealand themselves as well.
What, though, is the root of imperfection in nature? Aristotle
answered (and Maimonides agreed) that it is rooted in that aspect of
matter to which all being owe their material existence. This theory
distinguishes between the matter and form of each entity. The form
represents the generic character of each species. By being expressed
in matter, it generates the various individuals of that species. It follows
that all human beings are equal and indeed identical with respect to
the form that denes their humanity. They are differentiated from
each other by the matter that comprises their bodies, and inevitably
by the degree of perfection by which the form is manifested in the
matter, which is determined by the degree of its readiness or adaptation. Matter that is better adapted enables the expression of the form
of humanity in greater perfection, whereas matter that is less adapted
results in its more defective expression. We must remember, however,
that the very expression of form in matter is defect-prone by its nature.
Perfect material creatures are impossible in principle. Perfect human
beings are impossible in principle. There can only be human beings


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that strive for perfection to the limits of their potential. Even Moses,
the most perfect of human beings, did not correct all his faults, as was
demonstrated by his ts of anger.
It follows from all this that evil is not a positive essence with an independent existence. Evil is imperfection, in other words nonbeing. Thus
it is absurd to maintain that God is the source of evil in our world. God
created whatever is, and being or existence is good as such. We should
emphasize that this conclusion does not lead Maimonides to ignore
the very real suffering that natural creatures endure, especially human
beings, because of their deciencies. He especially does not ignore the
need to confront suffering and to reduce it as much as possible. For that
very reason he emphasizes that the good in nature outweighs the bad,
that God prefers creation to nonbeing, for existence is good in itself.
Thus God gave human beings the absolute metaphysical criterion for
distinguishing good and evil. Good is the preponderance of being over
nonbeing and life over death, of happiness and prosperity over suffering and failure. This is humanitys mission in nature. Therefore God
created man in His image, that is to say, he conferred on humanity
an intellect capable of confronting suffering. Moreover, God endows
human beings with the ability to transcend their material existence
and to live a spiritual life, pure and perfected, even while ensconced
in their pain-ridden, suffering bodies. This is the true good for which
the world was created.
Achieving this goal is of course the higher purpose of ethics.
Human Free Will and Its Limits
We now face the second issue: free will. We saw that Maimonides,
following Aristotle, assumes this freedom as self-evident. What does
he base it on? We must say: on immediate experience. From our own
inner experience we know that every time we perform an action, we
face the choice of refraining from it and performing a different action.
Indeed, in Chapter 8 of the Eight Chapters, which Maimonides devotes
to this topic, he assumes that free will is a self-validating intuition.
Our consciousness attests to it, and common sense requires it. Moreover, the Torah afrms it forthrightly, no less than theoretical reason.
From all these aspects, the question need not bother us. Nevertheless,
Maimonides knows that there are certain difculties, even within the
Torahs domainrabbinic dicta and scriptural verses that would seem
to contradict this view. So, too, in the theoretical domain: there are

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


some general principles whose consequence would tend to contradict

the principle of free will.
Therefore Maimonides approaches this problem with great reluctance
in order to resolve these difculties. Characteristically, he resorts to a
Torah-hermeneutic method in order to indicate his own solution of
the theoretical problem, though it is beyond the comprehension of the
simple reader. In other words, he identies hermeneutic problems with
their theoretical counterparts and solves them at one stroke. This is an
instructive example of Maimonidess method in reconciling philosophy
and Torah.
Refuting the Pseudo-Scientic Belief in Astrology
Maimonides assumes free will at the outset because direct experience
testies to it, and because it is presupposed by the religious precepts, as
by law in general. To be sure, anyone familiar with the endless debate
on this question in antiquity knows that direct experience, however clear,
cannot decide the issue. Though we arrive at our decisions as the result
of deliberation, it can be argued that our very choice is determined by
considerations that necessarily dictated a particular choice and no other.
By the same token, law and sanctions can be seen by reverse logic as
constituting determining factors in our decision-making process. Thus
it is equally possible to justify law, judicial process and retribution on
the assumption that human nature determines human action.
Maimonides was familiar with these arguments, though he did not
mention them explicitly. It was on account of them that he stood by
his view that free will could not be proved logically but only intuited
from direct experience. But to clarify the meaning of this outcome
to non-philosophical readers, he stated the problem in terms of the
best-known popular variant of a deterministic world outlook, namely
astrology. According to the astrologers, a persons character and fate
are determined in accordance with the astral conguration at the time
of his birth. This determinism of character and fate does not follow a
consecutive causal sequence affecting the course of his life directly in
the present, but rather a prior arbitrary determination from the outside.
Against such a view, the argument from immediate experience of free
will was strongly convincing. That is why Maimonides was able to voice
his short and sharp retort: Such a view is against reason and experience, and tears down the wall of the Torah. Indeed, there is no way
to prove a known direct causal connection between the conguration


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of the stars and human destinies, but this is only the rst stage of the
argument. When Maimonides has assumed the existence of free will
in human action, he shows the other side of the coin and claries its
limits. He leaves the eld of the astrological discussion and bases his
analysis on a more profound theoretical framework, though ostensibly
in a hermeneutic mode.
Rabbinic and Scriptural Pronouncements
In the second stage of his discussion, Maimonides pits this assumption
of free will against some rabbinic sayings that seem at rst sight to
contradict it. We note rst that Maimonides progressed from the easy
to the hard, starting with rabbinic examples and proceeding to biblical ones, starting with general objections and proceeding to specic
cases. Through such a progression he was able to present his outlook
systematically through interpretation of traditional sources.
The rst topic for discussion is offered by the saying, All is in the
hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven. The rst part of the
maxim seems to deny free will. What is Maimonidess reply? Indeed, a
person performs actions within a context of natural givens over which
he has no choice. He is born with a body of a certain size with certain
tendencies, talents, etc. All this is in the hands of Heaven. But actions
of religious and moral valence fall in his view under the second half of
the sentence, except for the fear of Heaven. Indeed, all of a persons
voluntary actions ought to be done as a means of acquiring eternal
truth, which for him is equivalent to worship of God, i.e. the fear of
Heaven. But free will is not unlimited; it is bounded by a context of
natural givens over which we have no choice.
The next hurdle is a more extreme rabbinic dictum: No person
turns a nger down below, unless they announce it from on high.7
How can one explain away such an explicit deterministic view? Maimonides replies that indeed that which is included in the category fear
of Heavenwhat is given to our choiceis also within the category
of a natural given, in such a way that our choice is bounded by some
context of lawful regularity. It is within our choice to cast a stone or
refrain from casting it, but the action itself is possible within a context

BT Hullin 7b. Maimonides does not cite this dictum directly, but only paraphrases it.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


of unchangeable natural law, and once we have cast it, we cannot

prevent it from falling. In other words, we have another limitation of
free choice within the context of natural givens and natural law.
Indeed, with respect to human actions Maimonides identies the will of God
with those natural laws which limit our actions and condition them. Not that God
intervenes in those actions directly, but the divine will as expressed in
the laws of nature conditions them from the outset, without contradicting the freedom that operates within that given context. It is proper to
explain here that Maimonides explains those interventions in human
affairs that we call miracles and wonders in a similar fashion. A
miracle is not a direct intervention of God in human affairs, but a prior
determination, conditional from the outset on the material structure
of existence. This hints clearly at the correlation of the Torahitic and
philosophic planes of the discussion. What is called the hands of
Heaven or the divine will in Torahitic terms, translates philosophically into the determinism of natural law.
In the next step of the discussion, Maimonides moves from the
general to the specic. First he cites the divine promise to Abraham
about Israels fated sojourn in Egypt: They shall serve them and afict
them four hundred years. Is this not predetermination? Maimonides
replies that the prior determination of the wickedness of a particular generation does not negate the free will of each individual. Free
choice is an individual prerogative. Put another way, by analyzing the
present we may predict certain social and political developments in
the future. Human nature and cultural characteristics, institutions and
traditions enable us to predict with a high degree of certainty whether
and when such a society will reach the degree of corruption that will
cause a particular outcome. But each individual is still responsible for
his own actions.
We should note that Maimonidess theory of prophetic prediction is
based on precisely such considerations as these. Prophecy generally predicts only those events whose conditions are rooted in present realities.
Surely such developments have an inuence on individual behavior. It
is easier to conduct oneself justly in a state whose laws are well-ordered
and which is on the path of progress rather than decline, by the same
token that it is easier for a person to develop proper habits if his natural
appetites are moderate. But even if we can predict with certainty that
the majority of Egyptians will be wicked, this does not deprive each
Egyptian of the possibility, as an individual, to be righteous. He makes
his choice and is responsible for it.


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Maimonides now proceeds to the last and most difcult hermeneutic

step. Scripture depicts God as intervening directly in human affairs to
the extent of explicitly depriving certain individuals of free will. Gods
hardening Pharaohs heart is the most blatant example of this. How
can one dispel such a cogent objection? At rst sight Maimonidess
remarks on this topic seem random and unsystematic. He argues that
God occasionally punishes the sinner by withdrawing the freedom of
repentancehe is not punished for his forced actions, but this compulsion is itself the punishment for previous freely chosen sins. This
ad-hoc explanation hints at a more systematic idea. In Chapter 3 of
the Eight Chapters, Maimonides distinguished among three categories
of the spiritually ill: (1) those who recognize their condition and
recover; (2) those who do not recognize their condition, but if they did,
they would have a chance of recovery; (3) those who even though they
recognize their condition, cannot recover. In speaking of one who is
punished through deprivation of free will, Maimonides is referring to
the third type. When sin becomes habitual, if one does not break the
habit in a timely fashion, it becomes a compulsion. At a certain point,
one loses the capacity to change, even though he knows he is at the
point of self-destruction. The examples of alcoholics and drug addicts
spring to mind. We do not say that their fate is an unjust punishment.
They chose their path freely at rst, and they are responsible for the
deeds that brought about their punishment, for the punishment is the
inevitable consequence of the sin.
We should note the implications of this interpretation for the doctrine
of providence. It suggests an outlook that denies direct divine intervention in the affairs of nations and individuals, and interprets reward and
punishment as immanent aspects of the natural order of the world. A
good deed is benecial in itself, and has benecial consequences. This
and nothing more is its reward. A bad deed is harmful in itself, and has
harmful consequences. That is how one should understand the biblical
hardening of Pharaohs heart as a punishment that ows necessarily
from his previous actions. More generally, choice plays a part in a causal
pattern that cannot be ignored. Historical and biographical factors are
part of that causal pattern. Any way we look at it, free choice must
nd its place in that unchangeable causal network.

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The Question of Choice in Its Philosophical Formulation

So far, Maimonides has treated the problem of free will philosophically
by implication, by confronting the issues raised by popular understanding and by the Torah. The argument from direct experience may seem
adequate against the astrological hypothesis, but when one has considered the limitations of freedom the question is raised afresh: How is free
will possible in the context of a world that operates in accordance with xed laws?
What is the relationship between free will and the rational order of nature, that
operates of necessity by eternal rules? That is the philosophical formulation
of the problem. Maimonides raises this question in his summation of
the problem, but here too he prefers a theological formulation: How
can one reconcile human free will with the belief in general and specic
providence, which implies that God has foreknowledge of all human
actions? It can easily be shown that this question is identical with the
philosophical version, as the divine will was for Maimonides identied
with natural law. He also identied divine providence or foreknowledge
with the determination of events in accordance with eternal law; an
event is susceptible of foreknowledge by virtue of following of necessity
from the chain of causes producing it. Thus we can ask philosophically: How can the contingency that makes free choice possible come
about within a framework of necessary rational law? Or in religious
language: How is free choice possible of God knows all human actions
in advance?
The Contradiction between Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will
How does Maimonides resolve this? A complete answer would require
a full exposition of his theology; therefore Maimonidess reluctance to
enter into this topic is evident. He cautions that it is impossible for him
to explain his views in full in the Eight Chapters. We shall not complete
our answer to this question either until we have discussed Maimonidess
theology. However, we can set forth its basic assumptions. It is possible
to prove free will not only from our inner experience, but also from
external experience, because although things happen in accord with
natural law, there is much that happens by play of chance without contradicting the fabric of causal necessity. Thus there is a realistic basis
to afrming the play of free will within the limits of natural law. When
we say that God has foreknowledge of everything, we mean that God
is the cause of existence and the cause of the law-governed character


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of nature. If freedom and chance exist naturally, one may say that
God is their cause in the sense that He has foreknowledge of them,
but how can God know chance and freedom without contradicting
them? To this question, no answer is possible. God is the creator and
knower, whose wisdom encompasses what mere human creatures cannot know. They know the reason for their ignorance, and should rest
content with that.
This line of argument may appear as an evasion of the problem.
In my opinion it is not an evasion, for Maimonides does not simply
plead, we cannot know. He proves that we cannot know. He does
not merely plead, The resolution of the contradiction is beyond our
power. Rather he argues that it is beyond our power to establish
that there is indeed a contradiction here, for though the contradiction between foreknowledge and free will is a necessary stipulation of
human knowledge, if we claim that Gods foreknowledge contradicts
our freedom, we are assuming the equivalence of human and divine
knowledge, which is erroneous. However, the full understanding of this
issue must await our grappling with Maimonidess entire theological
It is at any rate clear that we have here an antinomy which Maimonides
presents logically and forcefully. By the end of the argument, we have
no evidence for freedom beyond our immediate experience, but the
relationship between freedom and eternal natural law is beyond human
comprehension. A philosopher must rest content with this answer when
he has exhausted the resources of his reasoning and perceived its limits.
But it is clear why Maimonides is not comfortable dealing with this
problem in the open, outside the context of religious hermeneutics,
for whoever is not a philosopher will become perplexed by the very
act of dealing with an undecidable antinomy, whether in the Torahitic
or the philosophical domain of discussion. This is a classic example
of Maimonidess method of reconciling Torah with the conclusions
of reason. We shall see that many topics of Maimonidess theological
system are connected with this topic and illuminated by it.
The Golden Mean
We return now to ethics. We established its scope and purpose, and we
established the content of virtue and vice, each of which is a habit of
action. We must now determine how to evaluate deeds and character
traits. What is the criterion of good and evil?

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


Maimonidess position on this issue in the Eight Chapters is ambiguous. He appears to emulate the Aristotelian formulation of the classical
golden mean, which was the gold standard of ethics in the middle
ages, but he presents it in a simplied and schematic, almost mechanical way: The right way is the mean between two bad extremes. The
extremes of excess and deciency are bad; the mean between them is
good. Or in his language: Good deeds are such as are equibalanced,
maintaining the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much
and the too little. For example: cowardice is bad, and foolhardiness
is bad, but courage, which is between them, is good. Gluttony is bad,
and abstinence from food is bad, but eating in proper measure, which
is the mean, is good, etc.
Difculties Arising from the Schematic Character of the Mean
It can easily be shown that this whole description is purely abstract,
and that it is insufcient to provide a useful guiding rule for everyday
life. In principle one may ask: Why should the good be dened as
the mean between two opposite evils, rather than simply as itself the
opposite of evil? In practice one can ask: Does the denition of the
good as situated between two evils tell us at what point of the spectrum
it resides? How do we know where the extremes are located, if not
by prior reference to the mean? And how can we locate the mean, if
not by prior reference to the extremes? Whoever opens Aristotles
Nicomachean Ethics will see that Aristotle did not propose a priori norms
of behavior, but conceded that such a procedure is impossible. Only
experience can provide us with the expertise to calibrate the norms
in each area of endeavor, taking account of its peculiar conditions.
Aristotle qualied his adherence to the golden mean by dening the
good and bad as opposites in respect of the utility or harm that each
act brings to a persons total being. The proper criterion is ultimately
determined by the principle of harmony of the full ensemble of needs
whose satisfaction is necessary for a persons preservation, happiness,
and perfection, so that excess is dened as impinging on other needs
and disturbing the harmony of all the souls faculties. Surely such a
denition cannot automatically set a precise norm of behavior applying
to every person in every domain. But it does provide a kind of guidance applicable to everyday life.
In Maimonides you do not nd such guidance, neither in the Eight
Chapters nor in any of his other works. Why not? On the one hand,


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Maimonides does not require that his ethics provide concrete guidance
for behavior. For that purpose, he has recourse to the Torah, which is far
more specic than Aristotle in setting forth a general norm of behavior
that embraces the ethical realm as well. It is enough for Maimonides
to indicate that the Torah and rabbinic prescriptions point to the same
conclusions as Aristotle, and for that purpose his simple formulation
is quite sufcient.
On the other hand, Maimonidess objective is not simply to present
the Aristotelian outlook, but to oppose an outlook which was prevalent
in medieval thought generally and also among Jews (for instance, German-Jewish pietism): the ascetic outlook. The thrust of Maimonidess
words in Chapter 4 of the Eight Chapters is evidence that they were
addressed to this controversy. The model of the golden mean between
two vicious extremes is meant to refute the ascetics, who maintain
that there can be a good extreme as well as a bad extreme. On the
contrary, Maimonides maintains that every extreme is bad. If people
err and think that a certain extreme tendency is good, it is because
they celebrate extreme resistance to mans natural instincts as a kind
of heroic virtue. Maimonides objects that it is a mistake to see the
whole goal of ethics in this struggle against the bodily drives, as the
hermits8 and ascetics maintain by ascribing moral and religious value
to self-sacrice. Maimonides sees the intellect as the goal of human
perfection, and self-denial has no value in itself, but only harm. When
the struggle against the bodily urges is waged for its own sake, it detracts
from the task of intellectual enlightenment no less than surrendering
to those urges.
The Purpose of Ethical Conduct
Up to this point it is possible to interpret Maimonides as endorsing
Aristotles position: aspiration to harmony of the souls faculties, keeping the virtues, opposing asceticism. Thus far one may identify the
Aristotelian and Torah positions without a problem. But when one

Hermits: Schweid uses the Hebrew word Nezirim. There is a homophonic
coincidence between the Nazirite of Numbers 6:121 (who abstained from wine and
haircuts) and the Nazarene ideal (derived from Jesus of Nazareth and developed as a
literary type by Heinrich Heine). Though asceticism is more prominently associated
with Christianity in the Western tradition, it makes its way occasionally into Jewish
practice as well, as Schweid points out.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


turns from Chapter 4 to Chapter 5, one sees that Maimonides cites

Aristotles authority in order to embrace an extreme position, thus
transforming Aristotles this-worldly eudaemonistic ethics into a doctrine
of religious austerity.9
The background for this transition has already been explained. Maimonides interpreted mans intellectual perfection as the highest objective, in a profoundly religious sense. He equated this goal with the love
and service of God, thus transforming it from the rst-among-many
to the exclusive goal. All human actions can be justied only as means
to this end, not as ends in themselves, not even subsidiary ends in a
hierarchical sense. In accordance with this assumption, Maimonides
classied all human actions in three categories:
1. Purposeless actionsfrivolous actions (dancing, games that do not
lead to self-improvement nor serve a function such as rest and relaxation between strenuous tasks). One could (in Aristotelian mode) argue
that such activities have purpose in their very enjoyment, and need
not be judged in terms of extrinsic goals. But Maimonides is unwilling to accord independent value to any action that does not actualize
a potential that is specic to the human essence, even if it realizes a
general perfection of animal existence.
2. Actions that are means to an end but not part of the endeating, maintaining social relations, etc. It is obvious that when these actions distract from
their higher purpose and become ends in themselvessuch as pursuing
money or health for their own sakethey also become frivolous.
3. An action that one performs for its own sakeThis is the activity of
intellectual enlightenment, to which everything else is subordinate and
instrumental. But we should note that even in the sphere of intellectual
enlightenment, Maimonides distinguishes between instrumental knowledgecraft-expertise, mathematics, logic, and natural scienceand
the higher knowledgephysics and metaphysicsthrough which
human nature nds its perfection, as we learned in the discussion of

There is a ne line between the asceticism (safganiut) Maimonides condemns and the
austerity ( perishut) he recommends. The former sees sensual pursuits as bad in themselves.
The latter sees them as neutral in themselves, but as tending to be bad because they
distract one from intellectual and religious perfection. Of course, perishut is associated
with perushim (Pharisees), who from a Jewish point of view were the exemplary pietists
of the Second Temple period and forerunners of the rabbis.


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It turns out that according to Maimonides, the maxim of the golden

mean applies only to actions of the second category. These are activities that are under the jurisdiction of the emotional faculty, with which
ethics is primarily concerned. As for actions performed for their own
sake (the third category), Maimonides prescribes absolute and exclusive
devotion. There is no limit to knowing the truth or performing the
good of the community. The more, the better.
Divergence from Aristotle: From Eudaemonism to Austerity
Subordinating all actions to one purpose is a basic deviation from the
Aristotelian outlook. Whereas Aristotle set up a hierarchy of purposes,
Maimonides set up one purpose. Whereas Aristotle accorded value to
friendship, generosity, and courage as end-goals desirable in themselves
(on condition that they not detract from the others), Maimonides saw
them as only instrumental to a higher end. Thus Maimonides was
at odds with Aristotles ideal of this-worldly happiness (eudaimonia),
which included intellectual perfection along with other elements. In
Maimonidess views, all forms of this-worldly happiness are instrumental
to the one true goal that is beyond earthly human happiness, in the
sphere of pure spirituality. It is easy to see that this conception of the
true goal reintroduces a tension between mans bodily existence and
spiritual destiny. Bodily existence is experienced as a stumbling-block
that must be overcome. If this does not result in hermitism and asceticism, it leads at any rate to austerity.
The Differences between Philosophical and Religious Ethics
Though Maimonides departs from the Aristotelian outlook in his ethical
teaching, he does not dismantle the foundation of intellectual Aristotelianism on which it stands. Identifying the worship of God with the
striving after eternal truth marks a revolution in the understanding of
the notions love of God and worship of God that are so central
to the Bible and rabbinic teachings. This tendency achieves blatant
expression in Chapter 6 of the Eight Chapters, in which Maimonides
prefers (under the designation Hasid, or pious person) the person
without an urge to evil, over the person who conquers his urge. This
preference goes against many rabbinic utterances, including the one that
Maimonides struggles to adapt to his viewpoint: Whoever is greater
than his colleague, his urge is greater. It is clear in Maimonidess view

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


that any sensual urge that is greater than necessary for bodily selfpreservation is a deciency and an impediment, no source of advantage.
Even though the effort required for overcoming such an urge is a sign
of strong will power, nevertheless it distracts one from the major goal
of enlightenment. Indeed, Maimonidess distance from the biblical and
rabbinic positions can be seen in the various motives for which they
were opposed to asceticism. The rabbis were opposed to asceticism
because they saw in the body an instrument through which to perform
the divine commands of civilizing and perfecting the world. Saadia was
closer to the rabbinical position on this than Maimonides.
The rabbis opposition to asceticism did not contradict their view
that there is ethical and religious value in the strength of will power
that is manifested in the inner struggle over doing the right thing. They
valued the latter because they did not identify worship of God with
intellectual perfection, but with performance of the practical commands.
Such an enterprise accords considerable religious value to the effort
that a person invests in the performance of a mitzvah. If he sacrices
his own interest to that task, the rabbis count this as piety. According
to this outlook, there is value in withstanding temptation, and the person who
expends considerable effort to perform a mitzvah that he nds difcult for whatever
reason, is preferred over one who performs even a great mitzvah without having
to overcome any internal or external obstacle to perform it. Apparently such
considerations underlay the rabbis praise of the penitent. But from
Maimonidess Aristotelian standpoint, the notion of temptation has
no standing, and there is no religious value to overcoming obstacles in
order to perform mitzvot. Maimonidess attempt to interpret the rabbinic dicta on this topic illuminates clearly the difference between his
viewpoint and theirs.
Positive and Conventional Commandments
How, then, did Maimonides explain the rabbinic dictum on overcoming temptation? He was forced in this instance to have recourse to
R. Saadia Gaons distinction between rational and positive10 commandments, even though he did not accept it in its entirety.
Rational and positive commandmentsmitzvot sikhliyot ve-shimiyot. Shimiyot
(from shama = to hear, obey) has the connotation: these precepts are to be obeyed
simply because they are posited as law, with no further explanation given. Arbitrary
commandments is another possible translation.


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This was another expression of the gap between Maimonidess viewpoint and that of the Bible and the rabbis. Maimonides rejected the
term rational commands because in his view practical precepts of
action were on a different level than intellectual reasons judgments of
truth and falsity. Practical reason rests on the relativity of experience.
In Maimonidess terminology, R. Saadias rational mitzvot translate
into social conventions, i.e. the determination of empirical experience
as to what is useful or harmful. Knowledge of these is important from
a social-ethical standpoint, but is irrelevant to intellectual perfection.
Thus, Maimonides accepted the difference between mitzvot that
have ethical reasons and follow from social considerations, and ritual
mitzvot that lack this characteristic. In Maimonidess language, were
it not for the Torah, [the latter] would not be considered bad at all.
He was able through this distinction to interpret the rabbinic dicta
praising one who resists temptation. According to him, this does not
apply to one who has a strong natural urge to violate ethical precepts,
but to a person whose ordinary appetites tempt him to actions that
are ritually forbidden, which are not evil in themselves, such as eating
milk-and-meat mixtures or pork, but who shrinks from such actions
because he regards them as bad in themselves. The reason for this is
that only one who knows the true reason for the prohibition of such
actions performs them for their true religious reasons.
One may well doubt if such an interpretation captures the intention
of these rabbinic remarks. When one examines them in context, it is
clear they are talking about the ordinary temptations of individuals
who achieved greatness: desire for ofce and honor, competitiveness,
irascibility, and envy of the greatness of others. In any event, it is clear
that Maimonides deliberately ignored these contexts in order to refute
unequivocally the implication that there is intrinsic religious value in
withstanding temptation or suppressing ones urge, because for him the
true religious value was intellectual perfection and knowledge of the
truth. By his yardstick, a person of well-tempered emotions is superior
in every respect to one who scrupulously observes religious precepts.
Such a person can devote himself without hindrance to pursuit of intellectual enlightenment, and when he is called on to refrain from actions
that are ritually forbidden but not bad in themselves, he can fulll his
obligation of suppressing his urge for the right reason.

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


Ethics as Prerequisite to Prophecy

We nd the same ambiguitydeviation from Aristotles ethics out of
delity to Aristotles intellectualismalso in the nal stage of Maimonidess ethical discussion: the view of ethics as prerequisite to
This is an idea that Maimonides repeats several times in the Eight
Chapters. He alludes to it in the Introduction. He repeats it in Chapter
5 in a formulation begging for interpretation: And when there happens
to exist a person of this condition (i.e., one who subordinated all his
actions to the one purpose of understanding God), I will not say that
he is on a lower level than the prophets. We note that he does not
phrase it positively (such a man is on a level with the prophets) but
negatively, for reasons we shall consider. At the end he devotes the whole
of Chapter 7 to prophecy viewed from the standpoint of ethics.
What, indeed, is the connection between ethics and prophecy? The
answer that we nd in Chapter 7 is this: It is one of the prerequisites
of the prophet that he should be perfect in all intellectual virtues, and
in this respect prophetic insight is no doubt identied with full comprehension of the truth, i.e., with intellectual perfection in the Aristotelian
sense, but it is also dependent on the perfection of the preponderance
of ones ethical virtues. Maimonides does not set up the perfection of
all the moral virtues as a condition, for such a requirement is beyond
human ability, but he does require their preponderance. Furthermore,
Maimonides correlates the prophets degree of intellectual insight
with his moral perfection. Each virtue that is not perfected is a kind
of obstacle that obscures and clouds the prophets understanding and
obstructs his vision. The more imperfections are removed, the clearer
his prophetic vision becomes, until one arrives at the level of Moses in
the cleft of the rock. At that moment Moses had rid himself of every
obstacle except for the last one that cannot be removed in this earthly
life, the one that follows inescapably from the connection between
human reason and its bodily receptacle. Therefore Moses was privileged with a degree of prophecy that was nearly uninterrupted from a
temporal standpoint and approaching transparency in its clarity.
Prophecy was regarded by Maimonides as an intellectual illumination,
but we cannot evaluate the full signicance of this until we explain how
Maimonides understood the limits of human cognition of the divine. We
shall then be able to explain his remarks in Chapter 7 about seeing Gods
back, and how this differs from seeing Gods face. Here we must


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consider the connection between ethical perfection and the clarity and
continuity of prophetic illumination. The intellect is compared to a lens
through which the divine emanation is refracted. In order for prophecy
to be clear and continuous, the lens must rst of all be pointed directly
at its objective, and it must also be internally transparent. It follows from
this that the difference in capabilities between different intellects results
from their orientation and their inner transparency. The higher Intelligences, which operate independently without material substrates, are
always oriented toward the divine Source and are perfectly transparent.
They suffer no occlusion. By contrast, those intellects that are bound
to bodily receptacles are forced to interrupt their concentration from
time to time in order to tend to bodily needs. Thus the continuity of
pure intellectual contemplation is interrupted. At the same time, their
attachment to their bodies is strengthened, which dims their clarity of
vision, for care is being given chronically to those same bodily needs.
Thus the more addicted the person is to bodily appetites, the greater
is his distraction from intellectual concerns.
Now we can understand why Maimonides gave a negative formulation in Chapter 5. Ethical perfection is a necessary but not sufcient
condition for prophecy. Self-orientation and removal of obstacles is
a prerequisite, but one also needs intellectual perfection, which is a
separate qualication.
Ethical Perfection as Prerequisite to Prophecy in Maimonides
It is particularly important to emphasize moral perfection as a condition of prophecy for Maimonides, for this is at the root of the essential difference between the prophet and the philosopher. I point out
rst of all that the emphasis on moral perfection is a central motif
in Maimonidess thought. He emphasizes it repeatedly whenever he
examines the different aspects of his theory of prophecy. Clarity of
intellectual illumination is conditional on overcoming bodily constraints,
and on subordinating all ones actions to one goal. In the introduction
to the Guide, Maimonides compares prophecy to ashes of lightning
that break through the clouds of materialitythe thicker a persons
material exterior, the feebler the resulting illumination. In Part I of the
Guide Maimonides returns to the theme that human error in grasping
truth is caused primarily by ones being subject to urges that impel
one to deny inconvenient truths and to pursue the appearances of
the imagination that rationalize self-indulgence. Finally, in the famous

maimonidess politics, psychology & ethics


parable of the seekers of the castle in Part III Maimonides emphasizes

the part that sensual temptation plays in distracting people to idolatry
and other false beliefs. Only one who has trained his ethical virtues and
strives continually to perfect them, deserves to enter the inner palace
and enjoy the kings presence.
Thus concentration on one exclusive goal and adherence to an
austere ethical standard are criteria that differentiate the prophet from
the Aristotelian philosopher.



By summarizing what we have learned on prophecy from our investigations in politics, psychology and ethics, we arrive at Maimonidess views
on the essence of prophecy, its role and its mode of operation.
Image of the Prophet as Ideal Leader
From political theory we learned that the prophet is the ideal political
leader. In the most fully-developed exampleMoseswe see the ideal
legislator, whose legislation is the best for all humanity, i.e. for most
people most of the time. The purpose of the ideal law is twofold:
securing material bodily prosperity and also spiritual excellence. In the
less-developed case of the other prophets, we see them as leaders and
educators who direct their compatriots to the truth in the Mosaic Torah.
In this task, they embody the traits of the statesman: consciousness of
an authoritative mission, charismatic inuence on ordinary people,
perfected practical reason and the ability to predict the future as the
consequence of the peoples proper or improper actions. All these traits
combine practical reason with creative imagination.
To be sure, the prophet is more than just a statesman. He possesses
a theoretical thinkers breadth of knowledge, therefore his practical
wisdom is deeper than that of the ordinary politician, for it is based
on the laws that God determined at creation. He possesses moreover
that perfection that renders him a paragon for emulation, as well as
the specic perfection of knowing God to which he is devoted. Thus
the prophet guides his people as God guides all of creation.
Prophet as Paragon of Acquired Intellect
As we have said, the prophet is distinguished from the statesman not
only in the political and moral perfection of his legislation and leadership, but also in his psychological perfection, which he strives to impart
to all his followers. Therefore he must have arrived at intellectual

maimonidess theory of prophecy


perfection similar to a philosophers. The prophet must always strive

for attainment of eternal truth, and he must know how to impart it
to those who are not philosophers. How does he achieve this? Here
psychology comes to our aid. We learn from it that the prophet must
have achieved perfection of the acquired intellect, and that he is able
to impart that truth that he has attained in his philosophic capacity by virtue of
the imaginative faculty that serves him, not just in his capacity as statesman, but
also in his capacity as teacher and educator. He creates allegorical images,
through which he imparts that truth to simple people according to the
level of their understanding.
Prophet as Ethical Exemplar
In summary: the prophet is both philosopher and statesman, perfect
in the development of his practical and theoretical reason, and in his
imaginative capacity to assess events and to educate, which places him
above the ordinary statesman and above the philosopher.
As we learned at the end of the discussion on psychology, this
advantage is bound up with that ethical perfection that is a condition
of prophecy. The prophet is a perfected human being in every aspect,
and by virtue of this he perceives the perfection of his life with unconditional devotion to that ideal which transcends it: the service of God
and walking in His ways, out of responsibility to the benet of the
world that God has created.
Criteria For Distinguishing Grades of Prophecy
However, this general description of the essence and goal of prophecy
is insufcient from the political-religious perspective. From the religious
standpoint, one can ask the question of the various prophets degrees of
authority. If all prophets with authenticated missions are equal in degree
and authority, this is liable to cause dissension and schism, as indeed
occurred at the appearance of the prophets of Christianity and Islam,
which maintained the independent authority of their founders.
What are the criteria by which the authority of the prophets is determined? Apart from their differences in intellectual and moral attainment,
Maimonides distinguished among different types of prophetic mission.
There are prophets whose attainment was only for themselves, and
there are prophets who were designated for themselves and for others.


chapter ten

The latter stand on a higher level. This demonstrates the general

principle that Maimonides sees no opposition between a persons own
perfection and his inuence on others.
That inuence is a direct consequence of intellectual perfection.
The more perfect one is, the more he inuences those around him.
Therefore there is no opposition between a prophets aspiration to cleave
constantly to truth, and his aspiration to inuence his compatriots so
that they conduct themselves in a way that will bring them to the truth.
If we consider the matter carefully, this is the deeper meaning of the
notion of practical imitation of God: God has a continual inuence
over all existence by virtue of His absolute perfection.
But there are also many gradations among those prophets who
inuence others. The level of the patriarchs is not that of Moses, and
the level of the later prophets is different from that of Moses and the
patriarchs. Moses is the supreme prophet in perfection and authority, for
he alone was entrusted with the giving of the Torah. The institutional
consideration expressed in this judgment is clear and unequivocal: there
was no prophet like Moses and will be none like him, because Gods
true Torah is one, just as truth itself is one and there is no other.
Indeed, in order to justify this assertion Maimonides added another
criterion for ranking the prophets, a distinction in the source of prophecy. Most of the prophets did not receive their prophecy directly from
God, but through the Intelligences that mediate between God and the
world (which are the same as the angels). Moses surpassed them, and
indeed God said in the Torah that He spoke to Moses face to face.
Face to face revelation is revelation without an intermediary.
It is hard to give this a philosophical meaning. The one clue that
Maimonides gives us is his argument that all the prophets achieved
prophecy through their creative imaginative faculty. It aided them to
express their message to their non-philosophical audience, and it also
aided them in approaching an understanding of God and the divine
will. By contrast, Moses received prophecy without the mediation of
prophetic visions, but as a purely intellectual illumination or intuition,
without words or images.
Psycho-Physical Uniqueness of Mosess Prophecy
In the end, Maimonides specied a psycho-physical difference in the
prophetic phenomenon of Mosess prophecy as compared with the other

maimonidess theory of prophecy


prophets: all other prophets achieved prophecy in a state of sleep or hallucination.

This is a state in which the senses are not directed to the outer world,
and the intellect, which remains fully awake during the prophetic vision,
operates directly on the imaginative faculty, which is then completely
free of the inuence of external sensory impressions that normally
occurs in a waking state. But Moses was so free of dependence on bodily
states that he was able to prophesy in a fully waking state. Furthermore, all the
other prophets experienced prophecy in a state of bodily convulsion
and trembling, because the prophecy excited their sensory imaginative
faculty in a manner opposite to its normal tendency that is directed
to external physical objects, whereas Moses prophesied without any
psychological symptoms of this kind.
Though all these features are above and beyond the basic characteristics of prophecy dened earlier, we can easily identify the common
thread: all these distinctions among various prophets are different aspects of one
basic distinction: The prophets vary with respect to the degree of their overcoming
their material bodily condition. The imagination is also a bodily function,
and the difference in the source of illumination is rooted in a difference
in the purity of illumination. These many distinctions, in particular the
details of the psycho-physical conditions of the prophetic experience,
direct our attention to the meaning of this overcoming of materiality.
In the ethical domain we identied a certain tendency to austerity in
Maimonidess approach. The discussion of prophecy points to a tension
that becomes more intense the more we ascend in degree of concentration on the spiritual life. The prophets live in continual tension. Only
Moses was able to overcome it. Maimonides presents this fact as having
supernatural implicationsMosess prophecy was a miracle.
The Prophet-Philosopher and the Biblical Prophet
But now a serious objection may be raised. Is Maimonidess philosophical description of the prophet compatible with the depiction that
arises from the Bible? In several respects we may respond positively.
Maimonides gives a thorough discussion of the phenomenon of the
prophet as a legislator, as political leader and educator, as one who
foresees the future that will befall the people for their sins. He also
discusses the prophetic vision, the voices that the prophet hears, and
the psycho-physical conditions of prophecy as they are depicted in
the Bible.


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But does he discuss the prophet as the bearer of Gods word, in

the direct and simple sense of this notion? Here the matters are more
complicated, for they require prior agreement with certain basic assumptions of Maimonides. If one accepts these assumptions, the answer
will again be positive: the prophet intuits eternal truth, which is the
intuition of Gods reality from contemplating the works of creation.
This general contemplation is the foundation of ideal legislation and
leadership, and it is the basis of the truth that the prophet teaches other
people, and in that sense he hears the word of God and transmits it
to human beings.
Does this interpretation agree with the biblical depiction of God
turning to the prophet at the divine initiative? In Maimonidess view,
it is the prophet who directs himself to God in order to receive the
eternal emanation! Maimonidess answer to this question is that prior
preparation and readiness on the prophets part are indeed a necessary
prerequisite to prophecy, and it is not possible that the spirit of prophecy should rest on one who was not prepared for it. Still, prophetic
enlightenment is a divine emanation that emanates from God and
seems to overpower and inundate the prophets intellect. The divine
knowledge comes to him and reveals itself to him when he is prepared
for it. Indeed, the denition of prophecy in the Guide is: An emanation
from God by means of the Active Intellect to the prophets intellect,
and from there to his imaginative faculty. In other words, prophecy is
an intellectual energy radiating from God in the same way that physical
light radiates from the sun. This energy activates the prophets pure
imagination, and it is thus rendered a medium of divine emanation
to other people.
Revelation of Divine Will in Prophecy
Maimonides himself sensed that this explanation does not bridge the gap
between his denition and the biblical picture. The suns light radiates
of natural necessity. In the ordinary Aristotelian view, the intellectual
emanation proceeds from God in a similar manner, without any special
intention. But according to the Bible, God turns to the prophet and
to the people through him, by choice and not of necessity, in other
words, out of benecent divine will. This is the same divine will by
which God created the world, and the same will by which God works
supernatural miracles that express His governance.

maimonidess theory of prophecy


Recognizing this fact necessitated another modication in the Aristotelian outlook, one that is presented in Part II of the Guide of the
Perplexed. Maimonides distinguishes rst of all between two positions:
the Aristotelian position according to which whoever prepares himself
for prophecy attains it, and the popular interpretation of the Torah
according to which God reveals Himself at will to any person without
requiring any special preparation. Between these two positions, he
presents what he considers to be the correct view of the Torah: God
reveals Himself only to one who is properly prepared, and for the most
part whoever prepares himself properly is granted prophecy. But the
outcome is still dependent on Gods free will: God can deny prophecy
from one who is prepared to receive it. Maimonides cites as an example
the words of Baruch the son of Neriah, who took the trouble to prepare
himself but did not attain it. We must admit that it is difcult to accept
this argument at face value, given what we know about Maimonidess
theology and psychology. Nevertheless, we may look for an explanation
as follows. Prophecy was withheld during the Jewish exile even from
one who had prepared for it, on account of the tribulations that are an
impediment. Also, a person who has not been blessed with the requisite
imaginative faculty from birth is prevented from prophecy, because it is
impossible to develop this faculty at will. In such a case, it is possible to
say that God has not willed to grant prophecy to such a person. There
are commentators who grasp at these remote possibilities to explain
Maimonidess views. However, such explanations distract us from the
main point. We shall see later that there is an essential and profound
difference between Maimonidess view and Aristotles in understanding
the concept of divine will, and that is the key to understanding his
remarks on this question as well.
What is the Difference between Prophet and Philosopher?
It follows from what we have said so far that prophecy is a kind of
intellectual and metaphysical understanding. This raises the question:
What distinguishes the prophet from the philosopher with respect to
the substance or quality of knowledge of eternal truth? The fact that
the prophet can also be decked out in the robe of the statesman or
educator, or the fact that God can prevent one from being a prophet,
does not add up to a material difference between the prophet and
philosopher in their intellectual capacity.


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This is a question for which Maimonides was ercely attacked. His

opponents argued that according to Maimonidess presentation, it is
difcult to say how Moses, the greatest of the prophets, differs from
Aristotle, the greatest of the philosophers. In that case, what is so special about prophecy as a unique phenomenon of the Jewish tradition?
This is indeed a difcult question. However, it seems to me that only in
the supercial mind-frame born of polemics is it possible to argueas
did Maimonidess critics of the 13th and 14th century, and some Maimonidean scholars of todaythat he did not distinguish between the
prophet and philosopher with respect to their understanding of God
and attachment to Him. The difference is fundamental, even though
it is based on an Aristotelian psychology that does not recognize any
possibility of supra-rational understanding.
Our starting point should be Maimonidess conception of the uniqueness of the Jewish tradition, and the fact that prophecy appeared only in it, and
not in any other religious tradition. We said above that Maimonides did
not accept Halevis outlook, according to which the nation of Israel
stands on a higher intellectual plane than other peoples. The nation of
Israel is distinguished only by virtue of its having received the Torah.
Abraham attained the divine truth on his own, and by virtue of that
fact merited prophecy. He gathered around him a tribe of thinkers,
and their meritthe merit of the tradition in which their children
were educatedwas such that there could arise from their midst a
man such as Moses. By virtue of Mosess Torah, which was accepted
by the people, Israel merited that prophets should arise in their midst.
What follows from all this? In Maimonidess view, a whole regimen of
lifedirected entirely at attainment of the truth as the exclusive purpose
of lifeis a fundamental condition for the phenomenon of prophecy
in the most gifted individuals who have internalized the instruction of
the Torah and identied with it.
We can learn from this that the fundamental difference between
prophet and philosopher is in the orientation that is established by
a regimen of life devoted to the service of God: attachment1 to the
knowledge of God as an absolute obligation and exclusive goal.

Attachment: Hebrew devekut, a term of mystical connotation, identied with
mystical union between the worshipper and God, a goal that religious philosophers and
mystics pursue by different paths. For the biblical roots of this idea, see Deuteronomy
4:4 and 10:20 (where davek is variously translated as cleave or hold fast to God).

maimonidess theory of prophecy


This attachment explains rst of all the political difference between

prophet and philosopher that was discussed earlier. The prophet is also
a statesman, legislator and leader. The difference does indeed involve
the special gift of the imaginative faculty, but we saw that it is additionally related to the prophets dedication to the service of God by
recognizing the obligation to imitate God through deeds, and to impart
to all human beings the same understanding and the same sense of
obligation. Philosophers do not sense the same obligation. They rotate
on the axis of their own essence and strive to perfect themselves for
their own sake.
These differences comprise the source of a difference in the form of
understanding. To differentiate from the philosopher, the prophet attaches himself
systematically to the single purpose of knowing God. He is drunk with the
love of God. This is noticeable in his conduct, in how he bends all his
actions to the one purpose, and thus he makes himself a paragon of
conduct. This is noticeable also in his intellectual activity. Whatever
he knows, he turns into an occasion for knowing God further. The
philosopher also studies physics and metaphysics, but the prophet turns
physics and metaphysics into objects of contemplation for the sake of
understanding God through them. This is the same absolute absorption
in understanding God, by which the prophet surpasses the philosopher,
whose perfection is merely human perfection. By a special effort the
prophet breaks through to a superhuman state. He transcends materiality and manages at times to become, as it were, the embodiment of a
supernal intellect. This is the true prophetic illumination.
This conclusion is what explains the conditioning of prophecy in the
Torah tradition: The society that conducts itself by the Torah is a society
all of whose living arrangements are set up to direct human activities
toward the knowledge of God. Therefore every person who lives in
it and observes its precepts, to whatever extent he can, is elevated to
communication [with God] to that extent. The prophet personies the
perfection of that society. This is at any rate the immanent tendency
in the whole fabric of life that is both a creation of prophecy and a
preparation for prophecy. It is clear that the religious idealism which
we have singled out as a characteristic of Maimonidess teaching in
ethics, appears here as the root of the difference between the prophet
and the philosopher: reaching out for the transcendent, subordinating everything to the one goal of knowing God. This subordination
creates an actual difference between the philosopher and the prophet,
and from it is perpetuated also a social difference: the philosophers


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study the same metaphysics, but the prophet rises by its means to the
spiritual sphere that transcends materiality, and turns himself into a
mirror in which the incomprehensible divine essence is reected. Can
we say nevertheless that the prophet comprehends with his intellect a
supra-rational metaphysical truth? To answer this question, we must
turn to the next topic: Maimonidess theology.



For systematic reasons, one ought to start the discussion of theology with
proofs for the existence of God. In the Introduction to Part II of the
Guide, Maimonides presented a summary of propositions in Aristotelian
physics that he regarded as physical truths that were demonstrated with
certitude both empirically and logically. On its basis he offered four
proofs for the existence of God. If we compare this approach to that
of R. Saadia Gaon, the theological problem latent in it stands out at
once. We recall that R. Saadia Gaon rst demonstrated that the world
was created ex nihilo, then drew from this the necessary conclusion that
the world has a Creator. By contrast, Maimonides sought to prove Gods
existence on the basis of the empirical fact that there is a world governed by physical regularity. But was this world indeed created ex nihilo
as R. Saadia determined? Maimonides avoids this question before he
has demonstrated Gods existence, and bases himself on the doctrines
of physics that had brought Aristotle and his students to the opposite
conclusion, that the world is primordial and not created ex nihilo, for
being cannot proceed from non-being. Thus the original matter ( prima
material = hyle) had prior existence, and the eternal God has imprinted
forms on it through innite time without beginning or end.
What explains this choice? Maimonides explains that the proofs of
the Mutakallimun (including R. Saadia) for the creation of the world
ex nihilo are indecisive. In his view there are no decisive proofs either
for the Kalamic doctrine of the worlds creation or for the Aristotelian doctrine of the worlds eternity. Therefore if one wants to certify
the most important truththat God existsone should base oneself
on absolutely certain assumptions. Aristotelian physics was absolutely
certain in his view, as well as according to the independent secret
philosophical doctrine of the Mosaic Torah, inasmuch as Maimonides
identied Aristotelian physics with the secret Doctrine of Creation
(Maxaseh Bereshit), which in his view had been transmitted from the
patriarchs and from Moses to the succeeding generations.
In connection with Maimonidean theology, we should emphasize
that Aristotelian physics was not only the foundation of his proofs of


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Gods existence, but of his discussion of Gods nature. In Aristotelian

epistemology, knowledge of an object is based on knowledge of its existential causes. Thus Maimonides made Aristotelian physics a necessary
precondition for understanding the Torahs theology.
The Four Principal Proofs for Gods Existence
We shall not give a detailed exposition of Aristotles physics here. This
prevents us from giving a thorough analysis of Maimonidess proofs.
We shall content ourselves with presenting their logical ow.
The rst proof is based on two physical principles:
1. Every effect (movement) has a cause (mover).
2. The chain of causes and movers must be nite, because there
can be potential innity but not actual innity. (Theoretically one
can count ad innitum, but it is impossible for one to have actually
counted an innite number of items, or for an innite number
of items to coexist.)
It follows from these two assumptions that of the hierarchy of moved
and moving entities that we perceive, there must be one mover that is
not itself moved, i.e., a mover whose movement is not caused by any
other entity, but which moves another without itself being moved. This
unmoved Mover is God.
This was not enough for Maimonides. In his view, the unmoved
mover must exist transcendent to all moved movers. The fundamental quality of this Primal Cause must be essentially different from
that of all who receive movement from Him. His relation to the world
cannot be compared to that of a captain who stands on his ship and
moves with it, or to the souls relation to the body. God as unmoved
Mover is absolutely transcendent to the world. His existence is in no
way dependent on that of any outside entity. This emphasis distinguishes
Maimonidess outlook from Aristotles. This is the essential difference
between transcendental monotheism and pagan henotheism.
In the same context, Maimonides proceeds to demonstrate that
the unmoved mover cannot be a body or a power in a body. (If God
is the cause of movement and there is no prior cause, He must be
incorporeal, for corporeal beings cause movement by virtue of an
external factor.) Furthermore, the unmoved mover is non-composite
and indivisible, therefore He is a simple unity not situated in space or

foundations of maimonidess theology


in time. He is eternal. All these conclusions follow together from the

same philosophical considerations.
The second proof is based on the physical nding that if one part
of a composite entity can exist separately, then the other part can
exist separately as well. (If honey and vinegar are found mixed, and
the honey can exist separately, then the vinegar can exist separately.)
Many things are a component of moving and moved, and there exist
some that are moved but do not move, so there must be one that moves
but is not moved.
In our opinion, this is a condensed version of the rst proof: that
movement to which our experience attests requires that we assume an
unmoved mover, separate from the series of those moved by Him. We
arrive thus similarly at the notion of God as unmoved Mover, from
which follow the same consequences as in the previous; the unmoved
Mover is necessarily incorporeal, non-composite and unique. This
proof has the advantage over the previous that it is based not on many
premises but on a single premise. It is relatively simple, and one may
suppose that a reader who is not expert in Aristotelian physics might
understand it.
The rst two proofs represent the classic Aristotelian manner of
thought. They are based not on the idea of existence but on the idea
of motion. The world is assumed to be in constant motion. This
motion embraces Aristotles conception of the material world, which
is identical with the notion of becoming: a constant process of generation from potential to actual and the reverse. Nothing is said here of
God as cause of existence in the absolute sense, i.e. as cause of matter.
We see realized here Maimonidess assertion that he will prove Gods
existence according to the view of those who believe in the worlds
eternity. But Maimonides felt that these proofs were insufcient, and
he offers two additional metaphysical proofs that are based directly on
the concept of material existence.
The third proof opens with the experiential determination that
there are existent entities. A portion of these entities are such as are
generated and perish. Thus attests immediate experience. But this fact
proves that there must be a being that is not generated and does not
perish, that is a condition for the perseverance and continuity of the
process of becoming in our world. It is indeed instructive that Aristotle
used this argument to support his view that the heavens are eternal, for
they support the continual movement of being in the sub-lunar world.


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By contrast, Maimonides proves directly from this premise the existence

of God as a necessarily-existing beingthat is, a being not dependent on
any external cause, but on which are dependent all other beings, which
are therefore contingently existing or potentially existing in themselves. Thus Maimonides does not follow Aristotle directly, but rather
his Arabic commentator Avicenna, who determines empirically that our
world possesses in itself only contingent but not necessary existence,
so that it needs a necessarily-existing being to actualize it. Of course,
this necessarily-existing being must be incorporeal, non-composite, and
independent of any external cause, and therefore pre-existing.
The fourth proof is similar to the preceding, in the same way as
the second was similar to the rst. Experience testies that material
entities proceed from potentiality to actuality. Something that exists
only potentially cannot actualize itself. One must therefore assume the
existence of a being that is always actual, that actualizes other beings
that are potential. Again, this being is incorporeal, non-composite,
etc.in other words, outside the series of beings for which it is the
cause of existence.
What do these two proofs add to the two rst ones? Whoever examines them carefully will see that the rst series embraces the second
series, for the God who is the cause of motion is also the cause of
being, and being unmoved is the same as being self-caused. It is also
clear that existence is understood here as coming into actuality from
potentiality, and nothing is said here of God as the absolute cause of
existence. We are still dealing with proofs that assume the eternity of
the world. What is added here is merely another aspect of the understanding of the God-world relationship that sees God as universal
cause, expressed variously as the unmoved mover and the necessary
existent. Nevertheless, the term necessary existent takes us one step
closer to the thought-style of monotheistic religion.
Departures from Aristotle
One might indeed maintain that in the matter of proofs for Gods existence, Maimonides bases himself directly and unqualiedly on Aristotle.
Nevertheless we can indicate two essential differences.
First of all, Maimonides emphatically stresses Gods transcendence.
God is set apart from the world that owes its existence and motion to Him. This
is not the case in Aristotle, who identies God simply as the form
of the existing world. That is why Maimonides omits Aristotles insis-

foundations of maimonidess theology


tence on the eternity of the heavens, and that is why he emphasizes

repeatedly that the same evidence that proves Gods existence also
proves his incorporeality, unity and eternity. In other words, these are
different aspects of the fundamental assertion that Godconceived
as the cause of all existing beingsexists. These are consequences of
Gods transcendence.
The second difference, which Maimonides shares with all medieval
religious Aristotelian philosophers, is this. According to the Aristotelian conception, God is the nal cause of the world, in the sense that
the world strives toward God to achieve its own perfection, but for
Maimonides God is the efcient cause of the worlds existence as well.
By virtue of existing apart from the world, God exercises intentional
inuence on it. This is a fundamental change that has its source in
the monotheistic notion of God. It is an intentional departure, for in
Maimonidess view the doctrine of the emanation of the deity into
the world is idolatrous. Furthermore, this complements and explains
what was said above about the difference between the prophet and the
philosopher. Prophetic apprehension includes the effort to reach beyond
the limits of physical and metaphysical knowledge.
Proofs for Gods Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality
After these four proofs for Gods existence and the proofs for His unity,
eternity and incorporeality, Maimonides offers additional special proofs
for Gods unity, eternity and incorporeality. We shall skip them, for his
essential method consists in the assertion that all these ndings with
respect to God can be proved instantly and grasped together, for they
unpack the content of a single notion. This begets the question: How are
we to understand these concepts as applied to God? When we predicate
existence, unity and priority of God and of any other existing being,
can we naively assume that we understand these terms in the same
way? Or could it be that we use the same words simply because we
have no unique vocabulary with which to describe God, but these words
now have a substantially different connotation, because God exists, is
one and is eternal1 in a substantially different way than any other

The Hebrew qadmon, translated eternal when applied to God, means simply
prior or pre-existing and can be used in a relative sense (as in matter as such is
prior to its specic concretization in the world and in specic forms). The translation


chapter eleven

being? This is indeed the critical question that will provide us with the
transition from the topic of proving Gods existence to the topic of the
divine attributes. What can we know about God? Indeed, Maimonides
anticipated this question by dealing with it in Part I of the Guide, when
he dealt with the issue of interpreting material and anthropomorphic
images of God in the prophetic and rabbinic writings.
Thinking Correctly about God
We should emphasize at this point that raising the question of the divine
attributes signies a major turn in philosophical thought. In Aristotle,
the discussion proceeds from physics to metaphysics. The theological
discussion takes place within the metaphysical arena, without raising the
question whether the notion of God can be dened or understood.
The question is assumed as answered in the afrmative. However, this
question was indeed raised in the Neoplatonic school of thought. It
follows that Maimonides shifted at this point from the assumptions
of Aristotelian epistemology in the realm of physics to Neoplatonic
This shift is expressed in the assumption that we encountered in Part
I, in the doctrines of Israeli, Ibn Pakudah, and Ibn Gabirol. Though
God is transcendent, He relates to the world, and the world attests to
Him. But from the perspective of the world and its creatures, God is
transcendent and cannot be conceptualized. We can indeed attempt
to reach out and draw nearer to Him, but this is an endless process.
Methodologically, this means that we cannot arrive at a nal set doctrine
of divine attributes, but only at procedural guidelines. Maimonides
expresses this conclusion when he says that it is his purpose to guide
our thoughts aright concerning God. The chapters in the Guide devoted
to this inquiry (I, 5060) are a paradigm of this method. It is up to the
students to enter into this process and ascend from one stage to the
next, for only in this way can they understand and absorb its lessons.

eternal is inescapable in its theological sensean instance of how the same term
may have radically different signications as applied to God or to nite creatures.
For the importance of the Neoplatonic background to Maimonidess thought on
these issues, see Alfred Ivry, Maimonides and Neoplatonism: Challenge and Response,
in Lenn Goodman, ed., Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought, SUNY 1992.

foundations of maimonidess theology


What is True Belief ?

The opening discussion of the divine attributes brings us back to an
issue that we discussed in connection with principles of faith, but it now
comes up in an epistemological context: What is the difference between
true and counterfeit faith? The problem on which Maimonides wants
the reader to reect, and to apply to his own situation, is the following:
Does the acknowledgment of true propositions as true attest to what
the professing person truly believes, with respect to the content of the
words? We should emphasize that Maimonides is not referring to the
case of purposive deception, but rather of sincere profession of faith.
It is quite possible that underneath the mouthing of the correct words
lurks an incorrect understanding, confusion, or even total incomprehension of their conceptual content. Clearly, framing the issue in this way
casts serious doubt on the utility of dogmatic formulations of faith.
In any case, in the current context Maimonides seeks to motivate the
philosophical reader to shake loose of dogmatics and to enter into a
process of true deliberation.
Maimonidess denition of true belief supports this interpretation.
He denes it as complete agreement between a persons inner mental
representation and the things themselves on the one hand, and the
words that he articulates on the other hand. The persons inner mental
representation is the real indicator of what he believes to be true, rather
than the words uttered. If there is a gap between the correct sense of
the words and his mental representation, this is evidence of a mistaken
or false belief, even (and especially) if he is unaware of it.
This assertion of Maimonides seems simple and obvious. Its signicance in the context of the theory of the divine attributes becomes
clear when Maimonides uses it to level criticism at the thinkers of the
Kalam, including R. Saadia Gaon. Prior to Chapter 50, Maimonides
has dealt with the denial of corporeal attributes of God, and the
proper interpretation of apparently corporeal expressions in biblical
and rabbinic texts. In that respect, Maimonides expressed complete
agreement with the Kalamic thinkers. But when he turns to the issue
of attributes in general, the gap between their positions is revealed, and
it then becomes clear that the prior agreement was illusory, for there
was a profound gap between the words that the Kalamic thinkers professed and the notions that they entertained. First of all, they ascribed
certain attributes to God in a positive senseOne, Wise, Powerful,
Willingwithout differentiating the senses by which these words applied


chapter eleven

to God and to human beings, and thus they unconsciously ascribed

anthropomorphic and corporeal attributes to God. But in Maimonidess
view, the issue is simple: If God is the bearer of such attributes, each
of which is understood in the specic sense applying to human beings,
then we are ascribing to God a plurality of qualities, negating His unity
and incorporeality at the same time.3
We may conclude from this that Maimonides approaches the discussion of the attributes from the background of his discussion of Biblical
interpretation, and from a polemical objective directed against the interpretations of the Kalam. The question is still not How do we come
closer to an intellectual understanding of God? but rather, How may
we understand the prophetic utterances concerning the God who was
revealed to them? But the hermeneutic problem is also a theoretical
problem for Maimonides. Let us not forget our previous guiding principle: The prophetic image expresses the truth insofar as a person can
grasp it at a particular level of his development. Therefore the transition between one stage and another of the hermeneutic discussion is
at the same time a transition between one stage and another of each
persons intellectual progress towards the truth. Refuting the error of
outright corporeal representation of God is the rst stage. Refuting the
error of indirect material representation is the second stage.
Refutation of All Positive Divine Attributes
In Chapter 51 Maimonides drew the conclusion that follows from
the previous discussion in the form of a simple negative formula: It is
forbidden to ascribe positive attributes to God. Maimonides considers
this negative result self-evident even to ordinary people who are not
philosophers: If we ascribe to God attributes that add on to His basic
existence, we ascribe plurality to Him. Even if we say that He exists
and is one, the addition of one results in plurality. This is a logical
contradiction that any person with common sense can understand.

Maimonides believed, like Aristotle, that compositeness or plurality presupposed
corporeality. For instance, any common physical objecta table, a ower, a carhas
multiple functional attributes which are made possible by its multiple physical parts,
which depend on physicality for expression. This is not necessarily the case, especially
if we consider such things as mathematical entitiesproofs, complex numbers, and
bodies of knowledgeas existing in a Platonic ideal realm, which would presumably
exhibit plurality and compositeness while remaining incorporeal. But then he was an
Aristotelian. (LL)

foundations of maimonidess theology


In that case, what misled the Kalam thinkers, who were certainly
not ignoramuses?
To this, Maimonides provides two complementary answers:
(1) The error of the Kalam thinkers was that they took the Biblical
texts literally. The Torah predicates positive attributes of God. The
Kalam thinkers set out to philosophize on the basis of the Torah, in
order to validate its plain assertions as much as possible. They were
unwilling to depart from the literal sense of expressions that did not
appear obviously corporeal, and thusaccording to Maimonidesthey
denied the corporeal sense but left the attributes in place.
(2) The source of error in ordinary people is their imaginative faculty. People
were misled by their imagination, and conceived God as corporeal and
possessed of attributes. Even though lay people can understand the
negative formula that one must deny positive attributes of God, they
cannot grasp something positively existing without an image associated
with it, and this applies to God as well. They form an image of God,
because without an image God is absent from their thought.
Is there a contradiction generated, however, in ordinary peoples
thinking? Perhaps the reader will expect Maimonides to answer in the
afrmative, but in that case a surprise awaits him, one that will signal
entry into his dialectical thought-process. From the standpoint of an
intellectual novice, there is no contradiction here but two aspects of
an intellectual process that need to be resolved through further development. It is easy to understand the negative formula that God is not
corporeal. It is easy to understand that one must not ascribe positive
attributes to Him for they engender multiplicity. It is difcult to give
positive content that may take the place of the afrmations that were
negated, when the ordinary believer attempts to direct his thought to
that essence without corporeality and bereft of attributes, for he cannot
describe it. He involuntarily imagines something, e.g., he involuntarily
ascribes positive attributes to God, even though he has previously
understood that one should not do so. Fundamentally, the Kalamic error in
interpretation is bound up with that of the ordinary person. Each of them forms
a positive image of the divine, and an opposition is generated between
the negative formula and their intellectual representation.
Thus the hermeneutic background presents a theoretical difculty,
one that we encounter at all stages of intellectual development pushing
toward the apprehension of God: the negative stipulation, simple at
rst sight, is overlaid or at least obscured by the positive representation
that necessarily follows in its wake. This dialectical process is the key to


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understanding Maimonidess theory of divine attributes, as will become

clear in the sequel.
Refutation of All Types of Divine Attributes
The rst step in human thought towards understanding God is precisely the most radical negation: the determination that one cannot
ascribe any positive attribute to God because God cannot be dened.
Maimonides proves this proposition systematically: he rst shows that
it is impossible to dene God, and then that it is impossible to ascribe
any kind of attribute to Him.
(1) It is impossible to dene Gods essence. The proof is based on
the nature of denition. According to Aristotle, the denition of any
subject comprises two parts: (a) a statement of what the subject has in
common with other subjects of the same category, and (b) a statement
of what differentiates it from other subjects of that category. In Aristotelian terms: one must name the genus and the specic differences. For
instance, Aristotle denes man as rational animal, where animal
is the broader category including man, and rational differentiates him
from the other members of the category. God cannot be dened in
this way because He is absolutely unique and thus absolutely Other.
He is not found in any commonalty with other beings, nor does He
resemble other beings in any respect, for He is the cause of all beings.
Thus we cannot say in what respect He differs from them. Note that
the determination that God is their cause follows from our knowledge
that they are not self-caused. This denes them but says nothing about
God (for example that the ability to bring other beings into existence
differentiates Him from them). We should emphasize again that despite
the employment of the Aristotelian form of denition, Maimonidess
argument for Gods absolute otherness is not Aristotelian. In Aristotles
view, God is dened as a Separate Intellect, and he knows of only
one Separate Intellect, namely the Active Intellect. But in the
Neo-Platonic conception, there is a series of Separate Intellects
(or angels) between God and Man, and God is the unknown innite
Intellect who escapes denition by His absolute separateness from all
other intellects.
(2) It is impossible to ascribe qualitative attributes to God. It has
already been easily established that one cannot ascribe corporeal qualities to God. By the same token, it is impossible to ascribe emotional
qualities to Him, such as compassion, anger, etc. It is also impossible

foundations of maimonidess theology


to ascribe intellectual qualities to Him, such as wisdom or will. Why?

Because by Aristotles logic, every quality pertains to a dened essence,
without which it is meaningless, and is superadded to that essence,
bringing about plurality and composition. But God, being absolutely
One, has no denition to which qualities may be added. In this respect,
God is distinguished from all the qualities of whose existence we learn
from other entities.
(3) We cannot ascribe relational attributes to God in the same way as
we describe a man as father to his son or son to his father. Indeed, we
know that God is the cause of all entities. But again, our knowledge is
restricted to those entities that are not self-caused, and this knowledge
does not enable us to say anything about God Himself. Maimonides
offers this argument on the premise that entities may be described as
related to each other only if they are of the same order of being (such
as father and son sharing common humanity), but we have seen that
God is incommensurable with His creation.
(4) We cannot describe God in attributes of action in the same way
that we describe a man as a carpenter, shoemaker, teacher, etc., which
are activities that characterize him as distinct from other men. The
reason is similar to those for the exclusion of the previous kinds of
attributes. Nevertheless, Maimonides sees a need to soften this denial. In
a certain respect it is possible to describe God relative to those specic
manifestations which we can identify in ourselves and in our world
knowing that God is their cause. Indeed, from our vantage-point as
creatures in the world we cannot avoid such descriptions. However, we
should be cautious what signicance we ascribe to them. When we say
that a man is a carpenter, we mean not just that he happens to make
furniture, but also that carpenter-hood characterizes him as a person
even when he is not making furniture. In that respect, it is forbidden to
describe God in terms of his actions; however, we may describe Gods
actions themselves, and this is very useful to us, particularly when we
can speak in terms of Gods mercy, justice, and governance. Still, we
must guard against the innocent inference that these attributes of action
are attributes of the Creator Himself.
The Dialectic of Negative Attributes
If we review this discussion in summary fashion, we discover that
despite the categorical negation of all kinds of descriptions of God,
Maimonides brings us to a double awareness: rstly, of the increasing


chapter eleven

difculty of avoiding them, and secondly of the dialectical possibility

of using them despite their negation.
It is easy to understand why God is indenable. But when we come
to the question of qualities, there is a hesitation. Every logician will
agree that God cannot be described by the qualities of physical bodies: red, big, etc.for all agree that God is incorporeal. But when it
comes to denying psychological qualities, we hesitate. Scripture ascribes
to God qualities such as Gracious, Merciful, and Slow-To-Anger, and
these have entered the liturgy. Indeed, it is impossible to pray without
recourse to such attributes, and ordinary people cannot understand
why they would be in error. Therefore, Maimonides must explain that
when the prophets and sages included such terms in the prayers, they
employed metaphoric language that describes the emotions of human
beings, not of God Himself.
But the difculty is greater in the denial of relational attributes.
Common sense suggests that we should describe God in terms of His
relationship to the world, of which He is the cause. Indeed, Maimonides
admits that this negation is more difcult than the preceding, and that a
certain leniency is in order. One who describes God relationally is not
to be judged as idolatrous in the manner as one who ascribes to Him
corporeal qualities. It is nothing more than innocent misunderstanding,
which one should patiently try to correct.
The same logic applies even more in the case of attributes of action.
Here Maimonides admitted that even a philosopher cannot refrain from
employing them, and one even has a positive reason for doing so. He
contents himself with the qualication that one may describe Gods
actions as long as one does not regard them as substantive characterizations of the divinity. Thus the deliberation is dialectical. It starts
out with negation but moves towards afrmation. If the negation were
absolute, it would empty the notion of divinity (and even a philosopher
must have a notion of divinity) of all content.
Reconsidering the Kalams Doctrine of Attributes
At the beginning of Chapter 53 Maimonides makes the reader aware
of the dialectical nature of the discussion in the previous chapter. He
points out the progressive difculty of the denial of attributes and of
the ever-increasing leniency expressed in the canonical literature of
Judaism: the Torah, the prophets, the rabbinic lore, and the prayerformulas instituted by the rabbis. All this requires one to reconsider

foundations of maimonidess theology


the Kalamic scholars theory of divine attributes, which was originally

rejected sharply as simplistic and unenlightened. It now becomes clear
that there was after all a certain logic in their view, and we cannot
proceed further without clarifying it.
In fact, Maimonides points out in Chapter 53 a difference between
the way he himself presents the Kalamic position and the way they
presented it in their writings. According to Maimonides, they only
afrmed the divine attributes in order to be faithful to the plain sense
of Scripture. They, however, claimed that they did so for philosophical
considerations. Maimonides thought they were erroneous considerations,
whose deeper purpose was rooted in faithfulness to the biblical text. But
now that he has shown the philosophical difculty in avoiding positive
descriptions of God, it is necessary to clarify in principle what was their
error, so we shall not fall into the same mistake.
Maimonides therefore presents the Kalamic arguments in logical
order, from simple to more sophisticated:
(1) If we do not assume that the one God has diverse characteristics,
we cannot explain how diverse and even contradictory actions arise from
Him (such as lovingkindness and retribution). Maimonides resolves this
difculty with a parable: Fire effects through one characteristicblazing
heatmany opposite results: it burns, it melts, it hardens, it blackens,
it whitens. The action of the re is one. The various results proceed
from the diverse qualities of the substances affected by it.
(2) A second, more subtle difculty is as follows. Even if we recognize
that different actions, described by different attributes, do not proceed
from a plurality of divine characteristics, nevertheless the attributes
that describe these actions are taken as attributes of God Himself, for
these are His actions performed by His will and intention. Maimonides
replies that this is a typical instance of counterfeit belief as described
in Chapter 50: professing a view without truly believing it or without
understanding it correctly. This is at any rate a contradiction, to say that
God is one but to ascribe plurality to Him. Maimonides does not identify the target of his criticism, but it is undoubtedly directed at Saadia
Gaons Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, which maintains that God is one but
possessed of wisdom, power and will that may be distinguished from
each other without the plurality of these faculties implying a plurality
in God. Clearly, Saadia acknowledged the truth of Gods unity, but in
his mental representation there remained a plurality.
In order to dispel this difculty, which undoubtedly represents a
certain position through which every thinking person must pass on his


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way toward the truth, Maimonides offers a second parable: the intellect
is one and it exercises a single function though it knows many things.
There is a plurality in its objects, but when the intellect knows them,
they become the content of one inclusive knowledge.
(3) Even if we agree that plural actions do not imply plurality in the
actor, the very notion of divinity requires our reason to ascribe several
positive attributes to Him:
We shall mention that as to which all of them agree and consider to be
cognized [as necessary to the divine essence] by the intellect and in which
there is no need to follow the text of the word of a prophet: There are
four such attributes: Life, Power, Wisdom, and Will. They say that these
are distinct notions and such perfections that it would be impossible for
the deity to be deprived of any of them. Nor is it possible to suppose
that they belong to His actions.4

Now it is clear that these attributes do not proceed from those matter
that God knows externally or from His inuence on objects of different
characters. If we do not conceive of God as living, powerful, wise and
willing, we empty the notion of divinity, which we derived from the fact
of Gods being the cause or creator of the world, of all content.
In Maimonidess consideration of this difculty, we detect a slight
change in his stance towards the Kalamic sages. He admits that we
cannot conceive of God as cause of the worlds existence without
ascribing these attributes to Him. In that case, it is clear that their
error did not proceed from a simplistic reading of Scripture, but from
a genuine theoretical difculty. Nevertheless, the Kalamic sages did
not succeed in dealing with it correctly, given the philosophical tools
at their disposal.
What, then, was their error? Maimonides sees it as another case of
anthropomorphizing Godbut this time not on the plane of the senses
or the imagination or the emotions, but on the plane of the intellect:
a simplistic equation of what is required by the human intellect, when
it strives to comprehend God as the cause of creation, and what is
required by God Himself in the act of creation. In other words: the
fact that we cannot conceive of creation without resorting to these
anthropomorphic concepts (Living, Powerful, Wise, Willing) is no proof
that God is possessed of life, power, wisdom and will in the same sense
that we picture in our minds.

Guide I, 53, Pines 1212, with slight modication.

foundations of maimonidess theology


Maimonides thus rejects once more the Kalamic doctrine of divine

attributes. But we should note that this time it is not a decisive rejection
but a dialectical one, for by admitting that man must conceive of the
Creator-God as living, powerful, wise and willing he introduces these
attributes to the category of relational attributes and endorses their
employment in the same way as he endorsed the use of the attributes
of action.
The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy
The outcome of the dialectical confrontation with the logic of the
Kalam comes to its climax in a hermeneutically-oriented chapter that
focuses on a prophetic encounter of foundational signicance for grasping the biblical conception of divinity: Gods revelation to Moses in the
cleft of the rock after the episode of the Golden Calf. The outstanding
feature of this chapter lies not in any revelation of the divine will or
command to humankind, but the revelation of God Himself to His
chosen prophet. Such an event unquestionably calls for an explanation
in the context of the theory of divine attributes: in what sense was
Moses able to know God Himself with his human intellect?
The rst philosophical-hermeneutic question that should arise with
respect to the account of this event in Exodus is the following: If Moses
was indeed, according to Maimonides, the prince of the sages, the
greatest of all philosophers who ever lived, how is it possible that he
should ask God to reveal Himself to him? Did he not know what
every mediocre philosopher knows, that a human being cannot know
God through his intellect? Didnt he already know in advance that he
would be told, Man cannot see Me and live? In that case, what did
he really ask for? And what answer did he receive?
According to Maimonides, Moses made two requests on that occasion.
The rst was to know the ways of God, His actions and the management of the world. The second was to know Gods essence and glory.
He received a positive answer to the rst question. Human beings can
comprehend the ways of God, which are the divine attributes of
action. By contrast, the reply he received to his second question was at
rst sight negative: Man cannot see Me and live. Nevertheless, Moses
found a vantage point by means of which he was able to come closer
to apprehending the essence of God. This explains why Moses made
his request which appeared at rst sight impossible. On the contrary,
Mosess request comes to teach us that despite the innite gap between


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human knowledge and divine knowledge, the very striving to approach

God Himself by apprehending Him in thought is obligatory and
required. It is the highest religious value, and therefore the very striving
provides an opening point for participation in an ongoing process of
drawing closer. As this discovery marks a critical turning-point in the
dialectic of Maimonidess thought, we cite his words:
His saying, that I may nd grace in Your sight, indicates that he who
knows God nds grace in his sight, and not he who merely fasts and prays,
but everyone who has knowledge of Him. Accordingly those who know
Him are those who are favored by Him and permitted to come near
Him, whereas those who do not know Him are objects of His wrath
and are kept far away from Him. For His favor and wrath, His nearness and remoteness, correspond to the extent of a mans knowledge or

This is a dramatic turn: Maimonides emphasizes that knowing God is

the highest obligation incumbent on one, precisely at that stage of the
argument where it would be possible to conclude the opposite! For we
have learned from his critique of the Kalamic doctrine of attributes
that the permitted attributes of action and relation do not yield
actual knowledge of the divine essence. In that case, how is it possible
to obligate all human beings in that respect? For we note that Maimonides did not direct his words concerning this religious obligation
just to prophets. On the contrary, Moses is presented as an example for
all Israelites to followin an enterprise that seems impossible!
In order to answer this perplexity, we must solve the riddle of
Maimonidess intention in speaking of the vantage point that Moses
found, and to this end he offered a hint in Chapter 54.6 He refers there
to the scriptural texts that attest that besides revealing His attributes
of action in the character of a paragon of ideal conduct, He passed
before Mosess eyes all His goodness. What is this plenitude of divine
goodness from which Moses was able to intuit the divine aftermath?7

Guide I, 54, Pines 1234.

Indeed, the number of places where Maimonides refers to Exodus 3334 in the
Guide is remarkable. The important references include Part I Chapters 4, 8, 15, 16,
21, 37, 38, and 54; Part II Chapter 45; and Part III Chapters 5354. The gurative
interpretations of place (I, 8), stand (I, 15) and rock (I, 16) are crucial to the
notion of vantage point that Schweid elaborates here. (LL)
Maimonides famously interprets the vision of Gods back in Exodus 33:20 as
referring to the aftermath or effects of Gods actions; hence, by understanding the world
that God has produced, we come to indirect understanding of God.

foundations of maimonidess theology


The text hints that God passed before Moses all that He had created,
the entirety of existence, of which it had been said in Genesis, that
it was good. That is the goodness of God. We learn from this that
by attaining perfection in the knowledge of the totality of existence
that God created, it is possible to approach closer to knowledge of
God Himself.
From Negating Deciencies to Afrming Perfections
Chapter 55 is especially important because it offers a new methodological suggestion for implementing the turn that he arrived at in
the previous chapter. The central principle of this new method is the
recognition that God transcends our understanding because of His
absolute perfection, in contrast to our human understanding that is
fragmentary, limited, and decient in every respect. This notion implants
an ideal conception of God in human thought: God is ultimate perfection, in contrast to the nite, limited world. In that case, the objective
is to overcome the limitations of our awareness in order to advance
to knowledge of perfection and to strive to achieve it to the extent of
our ability. The conclusion that follows from this is that the more we
progress toward the ideal of human perfection in all its aspects, and
especially in its intellectual aspect, the more we approach the attainment8 of Gods innite perfection. Or in negative terms: the more we
repair our decienciesand especially our intellectual decienciesthe
more we approach the attainment of Gods innite perfection. According to Maimonides, this is the purpose of the Torah and the prophets
in ascribing positive attributes to God: every attribute that is an aspect
of perfection to humankind is ascribed to God as its innite source,
for in that respect He is beyond human understanding.
Thus the argument proceeds to a new level, which enables us to
understand the rationale of the previous level. Up to Chapter 54
Maimonides was engaged in correcting the intellectual errors of simple
believersthose who express their conception of God in material
attributes, because they innocently think of these as expressing human
perfection. From Chapter 54 onward, we are dealing with believers who
Schweid here uses the word hassagah which has a double meaning: attainment
and comprehension. Thus it unites two synergistically related goals: our intellectual
understanding of the divine perfection, and our moral imitation of the divine attributes
of action. (LL)


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have corrected this error, but at the same time they are caught in the
characteristic error of simplistic rationalists: they identify God with the
world that He has created, and ascribe the perfections that they nd
in creation to God, unaware that the perfections of God cannot be
equated with those of creation because He is their source.
To be sure, we have said that in Chapter 54 Maimonides explained
the revelation to Moses in the cleft of the rock as teaching that Moses
came to know God through appreciation of the perfection of creation
and its relation to God. Nevertheless, this was not a vision of Gods
face, but rather of Gods back. The Kalamic sages erred in ignoring this distinction. Indeed, the rst step toward understanding Gods
essence must be one of positive identication, but only in order to
negate it through the contrary insight that there is no identity between
God and creation; this last step leads us from the knowledge of the
created world to knowledge of its Creator-God.
Radical Incommensurability of God and World
Chapter 56 expands and comments on what was briey alluded to in
Chapter 55. It points out the contradiction between professed faith
and mental representation in the minds of those who ascribe positive
attributes to God. The source of this contradiction lies in the simplistic
equation of human perfection with divine perfection. So far, this adds
nothing to the argument of the previous chapter. The new insight,
which marks a further progression of the argument, is the negation
of a new category of positive attributes that had not been mentioned
previously, and that would not have occurred to the simple believer
or simple-minded rationalist to deny to God in the sense that human
beings understand them. These are the attributes of existence, unity
and eternity. Maimonides now declares that even these attributes, which
he himself had enumerated in his Thirteen Principles, are predicated
of God and of His creatures equivocally. That is to say, we use these
words in both contexts because we have no others, but their meaning
is substantially different. The proof of this, which is likely to confound
dogmatic believers, is presented simply in order to be readily understood.
Every proposition that unites a subject with predicates not included in
the denition of its essence, thereby adds something to it, resulting in
plurality. If we ascribe them to God in the same way that we ascribe
them to other subjects, we thus create composition and plurality in our
representation of God, thus in effect ascribing corporeality to Him.

foundations of maimonidess theology


This is a serious failing. But the difculty it poses is equally serious, for
if we deny these attributes of God in the usual sense, we must apparently empty our concept of God of any content at all. We cannot even
ascribe existence to Him in our usual sense, for it is blasphemous to
think that God exists in the same way that we exist. And if we add
unity to that, we have then made Him two in our thoughts!
From the simplistic-rationalistic perspective, Maimonides has set a
trap here from which there is no escape. On the one hand, we must
think that God exists, is one, and is eternal. Had we not proved this
at the outset? Willy-nilly, we understood these attributes in the same
sense as with any subject. On the other hand, it is forbidden for us to
ascribe these attributes to God! This is a perplexing antinomy, but from
Maimonidess perspective it points the way to the vantage point by
means of which it is possible to transform our progress in knowledge
of the world that God has created into progress in our knowledge of
Him. This requires the dialectical transformation of positive attributes
to negative attributes. The discussion in the succeeding chapters will
prove this.
Positive and Negative Attributes Pertaining to God
What is a negative attribute? The primary meaning is the determination
that a given subject is different from another subject that we know possesses a certain characteristic that can be dened precisely. For example,
Subject A, which still needs to be dened, is different from Subject B,
whose denition we know, for Subject A lacks traits such-and-such that
are found in Subject B. Maimonides determines that such a distinction
between an undened subject and something else, gives us information
about it without dening it and without generating a representation of
it that has plurality. This information sheds a certain light on its nature,
for it pertains to the denition of a subject that is familiar to us. We
should note two things that follow from this, though Maimonides does
not state them explicitly. First, when it is clear and certain to us that
there is or must be some unidentied object, whether because reliable
people testied to its existence or because we infer its existence from the
behavior of known objects, we form in our minds some conceptual or
pictorial representation of that object. Otherwise, we could not think
about it. It is now incumbent on us to add content to it, to rene and
clarify the concept or image so that it shall agree with reality. Negative
contrasts aid us in this task. Second, comparing the unidentied object


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with familiar objects which led us to assume its existence, teaches us

something about this object, and when we draw distinctions between
it and others, we clarify further the relationship between the identied
and the unidentied object. Therefore, the more such comparisons we
can make, the more we can approximate the correct positive denition. In Chapter 60 Maimonides explains this process with an example
that we may mention here. We see an unidentied object oating in
the sea. We try to identify it by comparing it with other objects that
oat in the sea, and we nd that it lacks certain characteristics that
dene those objects, until only one alternative remains: the object in
question is a ship.
To be sure, we shall be guilty of a grave error if we equate the process of searching for the denition of an unidentied object, which is
in principle capable of denition and whose like we have seen many
times, with the search for denition of a being which is indenable in
principle by us, whose essence only He Himself can dene. Nevertheless, Maimonides maintains that by negating those characteristics that
distinguish the concept of God in our mind from the clear concept
that we have of ourselves, we progress toward a correct denition of
God without actually arriving at it. Why? Because we know that there
is a relation between ourselves and God, for it is this relation that has
made us believe in God.
It is this understanding that leads Maimonides toward a second,
more complex notion of the negative attribute. As mentioned in the
previous discussion, it is forbidden to us to ascribe to God in our minds
attributes that are in the nature of deciencies that characterize human
beings and other creatures in relation to God, such as corporeality,
passions, drives and desires, but it is proper for us to attribute to Him
that which is a perfection for us, such as wisdom, power, and will. This
procedure leaves us open to the error of confusing our wisdom with
the divine wisdom and our will with the divine will, but we can overcome this error if we express the positive attribute in a negative way.
In other words, God is the cause of these perfections that we nd in
ourselves. It is therefore impossible that they should be absent in him.
Thus the superior type of negative attributethe one that brings us
closest to knowledge of God on a philosophical levelis the negation
of privations. It is rooted in a denite content that is familiar to us,
and it relates it to God in such a way that no plurality is formed in our
concept of God. Thus the more that our human wisdom, power, and

foundations of maimonidess theology


will are expanded and perfected, so will our knowledge of God, since
its source is in these perfections, yet it is not dened by them nor will
it suffer multiplicity on their account.
Progress in the Knowledge of God
The question that one may ask at the conclusion of the previous argument is this: What is the positive content of progress in the knowledge
of God, if the way is endless? What is the substantive difference between
the knowledge of someone who is at the beginning of the way, and
one who has traveled some distance along it, if both are equally distant
from the nal goal?
Maimonidess answer invites the actual inquirer to retrace his steps
and examine the path that he himself has traversed from the start of
the discussion on the attributes. First he denied material attributes of
God, thus advancing beyond sheer superstition. Even though one does
not at this stage know God Himself, the distinction between him and
the corporealists is quite signicant, for the latter are not truly thinking
about God, though they apply the name God to an entity that is the
exact opposite of the divine essence. The one who knows that God is
not corporeal is at least directing his thoughts toward God. Next, this
quester denied all passions and emotions of God. Next, he denied the
positive attributes, and every positive comparison between God and
the created realm. Through all these steps, important realizations were
accumulated, whose positive content is knowledge of the reason why one
must deny all these characteristics of God, which are in effect human
deciencies that differentiate between man and God. If he understands
that these are deciencies, then he has learned something important
about himself. If he understands that one ought not to ascribe these
deciencies to God, then he has acquired an unfolding notion of perfection that has no nal limit.
One of Maimonidess great critics, R. asdai Crescas, argued
against this interpretation, that in the accumulation of these negations
there is no real progress, because the point of each of the negations is
identical, and in fact trivial: all positive attributes are denied because
they create plurality in God. But we should recall that Maimonides
himself determined in Chapter 51 that the logical proof is simple and
straightforward even for a non-philosopher. On the other hand, he
showed that all the succeeding negations proceed one from the next in


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ascending order and in increasing difculty. The Kalamic sages knew

that one had to deny corporeality and compositeness of God, yet they
still came to grief.
The stumbling-block that they failed to surmount was the difculty
of denying positive attributes of God without emptying ones mental
representation of God of all content. It is easy to say that God is not
corporeal, and it is easy to prove it. But it is very difcult to conceive of
an immaterial entity. Maimonides demonstrated this in the beginning
of his discussion of the attributes. Most people say in all innocence
that God is incorporeal, but the representation in their minds is of
something material. This applies with greater force when one comes
to negating the passions, the positive attributes, and the similarity of
God and the world. Internalizing the positive signicance of these negations by creating a new concept or a new representation of God in our
minds, even as we know that we shall have to negate it as wellthis
is the true progress. We shall appreciate it if we recall the metaphor
of the lightning-ashes of illumination that attended the prophets
enlightenment. These represent intuitive leaps of insight that occur
more frequently when one has removed the barriers of erroneous ideas
caused by our intellectual nitude.
In the conclusion of Chapter 59, Maimonides summarizes this insight
in the formulation that the ultimate in human understanding of God
is expressed in silence. Those who are remote from true knowledge of
God feel that the more they engage in extravagant terms of praise, the
better they can express their awareness of His greatness. But the wise
person knows that Gods perfection is beyond all this, and he expresses
this through silence. This silence is not the absence of thought, but
a transcendence towards what is beyond all expression because it is
beyond denition.
The Via Negativa
The idea that is expressed metaphorically through the formulation that
the ultimate in human understanding of God is expressed in silence,
marks the transition from the most advanced standpoint of Kalamic
thought to Aristotelian philosophy, which in Maimonidess view embodied
the truth.9 Maimonides therefore endeavors to clarify the substantive

By Aristotelian here is meant the medieval Aristotelian tradition that had
incorporated marked neo-Platonic elements. (The pseudepigraphic Arabic Theology

foundations of maimonidess theology


difference between the Kalams use of negative attributes, which at rst

sight comes very close to the outlook he propounds, and his favored
approach. The Kalamic thinkers maintain that one may ascribe to God
attributes of perfection, so long as one qualies this by distinguishing
between their meaning as applied to human beings or to God. Thus,
they say that God is wise, but not by human wisdom; existing, but not
by human existence; etc. In the preceding chapters, Maimonides has
allowed that one may tolerate and condone people who resort to such
attributes, because their intention is innocent and they do not actually
corporealize the deity. However, philosophically they are in error.
The distinction between the formula we have just given and Maimonidess formula in Chapter 58 (God is not non-existent, God is
not lacking in wisdom, etc.) is indeed quite subtle, and whoever is not
a scrupulous philosopher will have difculty understanding it, but in a
philosophers view it is substantial and decisive. To be sure, the formula
of the advanced Kalamic thinkers avoids overt anthropomorphism, but
it still conceives God in terms of distinct positive attributes, which give
us an impression of plurality and compositeness, and this is still anthropomorphic by implication, though in a subdued fashion. Thus there is
still the same gap in Kalamic thought between their declared faith and
the mental representation that expresses it. Only through negation of
privations in God can we transform our own self-perfection in human
wisdom into progressive knowledge of the divine perfection that is its
source. Only thus can we illuminate the model of divine perfection in
our thinking from the absolute clarity of saying nothing about it, in our
knowledge that whatever we say about it by virtue of the concept we
have formed of it, relates not to it but to some other entity, for it is out
of such worldly concepts that we have built our concepts of God.
Maimonidess Dialectic
The doctrine of negative attributes that we have articulated in such
detail is the most instructive example for illuminating the philosophical enterprise as a path to truth and to a life informed by truth in
Maimonidess thought. We should therefore summarize, in his fashion,

of Aristotle was a paraphrase of Plotinuss Enneads Books 46.) Maimonidess negative

theology here is one of the supreme expressions of the Neoplatonic inuence within
the medieval Aristotelian tradition. (LL)


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the characteristic features of this approach before we proceed to consideration of the rest of his theology.
Three characteristics stand out in the transition from the initial
certain, dogmatic knowledge that there is a God who is single and
eternal, to the consideration of what human beings may know of
Gods essence:
(1) There is a hierarchical progression from one level of the argument to the next,
skipping nothing in between. Throughout the Guide, Maimonides cautions
the reader to follow this method scrupulously without deviating from
it. Every hasty skip will lead to error. The further we progress, the
more subtle will the transitions be, and the more prone to error. The
transitions progress in difculty from denial of materiality to denial of
passions, and from there to denial of any plural positive attributes, to
denial of similarity between God and creation, denial of attributes
of existence and unity, and denial of positive assertions even in an
equivocal sense.
(2) There is a tension between opposing requirements throughout the discussion.
First, there is the requirement that we must rid our God-concept of
corporeality, passion, similarity to creation, etc. through clear arguments
that can easily be grasped by anyone on a rst reading. Afterwards, a
positive mental representation arises from this negative requirement,
whose implications are hard to assimilate despite the ease of its proof.
This is the source of the errors and misconceptions that arise at every
stage of the discussion.
This duality is reected in how the discussion as a whole is framed by
two complementary approaches. On the one hand, we have an analytical
argument which is negative in its import: a critique of mistaken views,
particularly the Kalams, in which Maimonides distinguishes different
levels of articulation, and with which he has to contend at each stage
of his own argument. On the other hand, we have a hermeneutical
argument which is positive in its import: Maimonides interprets verses
from Scripture to justify the expressions of the prophets and the sages
that seem to be at variance with philosophical truth. This is necessary,
because all the errors that Maimonides seeks to dispel have their original
source in the Kalamic thinkers effort to be true to the plain sense of
Scripture. In this way, Maimonides presents his intellectual opponents
as representative of his readers, to whom his book is addressed: people
whose thought is developed to a certain extent, and whose views are
a mixture of truth and error, whose declared faith is therefore inconsistent with their mental representation. It is therefore Maimonidess

foundations of maimonidess theology


aspiration to guide the reader to a more correct conception that will

more faithfully conform to the negative requirement that he is trying
to follow.
(3) The discussion reects back on itself. At each stage, Maimonides examines the preceding course of the argument. The doctrine of negative
attributes is itself a reection on the deliberation that leads to it, in
which Maimonides dispelled from God in turn corporeality, passions,
and similarity to creation. This is the path that leads to truth. In this
sense, it is possible to relate afrmatively to this misconception, if it
is presented as a temporary convenience for dispelling previous error,
and one does not intend to stay with it, but rather to pass through it
and leave it behind. In other words, this conception is not offered for
acceptance, but for critical evaluation. If one is conscious that it is but
a provisional stepping-stone, it will aid one in arriving at the truth and
will not lead to error. In any case, every stage in the journey to truth
points to the nal goal, and reveals how far we are from it even as we
draw nearer to it. This perspective is the key to resolving all the difculties that come up in the course of his discussion.
Dialectical Consideration of the Divine Attributes
Let us rst identify those difculties that derive from apparent contradictions in Maimonidess presentation:
(1) Maimonides justies the prophets gurative depiction of God,
in which they ascribe to God positive attributes and a resemblance
to human personality and intellect. In his view, these are useful and
necessary means for guiding ordinary Israelites notions towards the
truth insofar as each of them can grasp it. But afterwards he argues
that whoever ascribes positive attributes to God does not merely fall
short of apprehending Him, nor is he merely guilty of associating
Him (with created beings) or of erring in describing Him, but does
not truly believe in God at all.10

See I, 60 (Pines 145). The rst three errors that are named here combine partial
truth with partial error. Each is of the form God is X where the believer correctly
apprehends the term God but errs in that the predicate is either less than Gods true
essence or includes an admixture of not-God, or is otherwise incorrect. Maimonides
says that the believer has not even grasped the rst part God correctly, so he does
not truly have God in his thoughts at all.


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How, then, does the prophetic utterance lead the common Jew to
the truth? Is not such a person incapable of conceiving an essence that
is incorporeal and devoid of positive attributes?
(2) The same argument can be made from the last chapters of the
discussion concerning the attributes, in which Maimonides denies any
common denominator of similarity between God and the created realm,
whereas when speaking of the prophets he justies their comparison of
God with His creatures. Furthermore, it is precisely the dening trait
of the prophet, that he is able to portray the Creator imaginatively in
terms drawn from creation, to lead common people to the truth. As for
the vision of Gods back that Moses attained, Maimonides interprets
this as understanding God from His creation. How can one reconcile
these two mutually exclusive requirements?
(3) Maimonides furthermore allows the attributes of action only
because they do not pertain to Gods essence. Nevertheless, he argues
that by attaining knowledge of Gods ways (which he equates with
the attributes of action), Moses was able to approach closer than any
other prophet to the true understanding of God.
(4) Maimonides proves Gods existence on the grounds that God
is the cause of all existing things. Nevertheless, he does not allow the
relational attribute, that posits a causal relationship between God and
the world.
(5) Finally, Maimonides speaks of a continual process of negation. In
the most extreme formulation, he demands utter negation and denial
even of the stipulation that God is possessed of perfections beyond our
understanding. Nevertheless, he ascribes to all the prophets and sages
(in their respective degrees) a kind of illumination. This may indeed
be a metaphor, but it still seems to indicate a positive apprehension of
God of a high order.
Taken together, these difculties seem to be aspects of one general
difculty. In that case, the same solution may apply to all of them.
Each According to Ones Level of Understanding
The solution of the difculties enumerated above is rooted in Maimonidess self-appointed task as a philosopher in the Torah tradition:
To guide all his kinfolk, who have a portion in the world to come, to
attainment of the truth, each according to his ability. This is the same
task that all the prophets and sages of Israel assumed. Maimonides followed in their pathaccording to his philosophic understanding of it,

foundations of maimonidess theology


to be surebut fully identifying with that tradition. He proceeds from

the assumption that they all shared a common starting-point, which
was their knowledge of the one God, whom it was incumbent on them
to serve according to His Torah. They each had an initial conception
of God, and it was their task to verify it, to rene it, to illumine it as
much as possible. To that purpose, each one must grapple at his own
level with the difculty appropriate to it.
The simple believer, who receives this injunction by way of revealed
tradition, cannot help imagining some image of Gods being. At the
elementary stages of thought, one imagines all things as having physical
characteristics. Prophecy that is addressed to the simple believer accommodates to him and speaks in language that compares the Creator to
His creation.
It does so in order to reinforce the believers initial conception and
to imbue it with positive content that he can comprehend, so that he
will be certain that God exists and is one and eternal. If taking these
things to heart requires tangible imagery, it may be provided. Still,
this positive stipulation is a starting-point and foundation for directing
ones thought-process beyond it through the negative stipulation, which
is true without qualication. Nevertheless, the negative stipulation will
not achieve its goal if it does not contain an allusion to a positive representation that comes to take the place of the more primitive positive
representation that is to be superseded. Where is the substitute image
found? Maimonides answers: In the body of the tangible imagery that
the prophet uses, if his listeners understand from their negative knowledge that they ought not ascribe a tangible image to God, and that
it is therefore forbidden to take the prophets words literally, for they
embody another truth. If they apply themselves and learn in depth,
they will attain it. It follows that the truth is not revealed in the literal
sense of the prophetic image, but it is hidden in it as a challenge for
further thought. Whoever is able, will immerse himself in it, and whoever is not able will at least understand that the image that he is able
to grasp is not the nal truth but only an allusion to it. Thus he too is
saved from error and merits his portion in the world to come through
fulllment of the divine commandments with the pure intention of serving his Creator. In any case we must credit that Maimonides requires
even simple believers and schoolchildren to exercise a certain amount
of critical reection, by which they avoid erroneous belief.
To be sure, the philosopher is at a more advanced stage of intellectual
development, but in principle he nds himself in a similar situation.


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His knowledge that God exists and is one and eternal comes not from
revelation but from philosophical proofs of Gods existence, unity,
incorporeality and eternity. Nevertheless, he too has a certain mental
conception of God and of His existence, unity and eternity. Thus the
same danger threatens him as the simple believer, and precisely because
of his greater intellectual sophistication it is harder for him to overcome
it. He is liable to identify the divine essence with a spiritual essence
that he conceives in his mind. He is compelled to picture God in such
a fashion, but he ought immediately to do also what the prophets and
sages required of the simple believers: to subject his notion to criticism, to negate it and to discover through the dialectical process that
proceeds from afrmation to negation the next conception, that will
be closer to the truth.
The Kalamic sage or theologian stands midway between the simple
believer and the philosopher, but his advantage over the former has
become an impediment. He uses his scientic reason, which relies
directly on sense experience, but he does not know the philosophical
path that proceeds from elementary sciences to physics and from there
to metaphysics. Therefore he continues to rely on the literal sense of
the prophets, even though he understands that when a contradiction
appears between Scripture and scientic reason, one may interpret
Scripture non-literally. The result can be quite dangerous, and that
is why Maimonides was severely critical of the Kalamic sages. Their
intention was honorable, but they invented an erroneous physics11 to
conform to their conception of the Torahs meaning. On that basis,
they developed a mistaken theology and argued that it was philosophically correct.
Resolving the Contradictions
We seem to have resolved the rst difculty posed earlier. This answer
gives a solution to the second difculty as well. Maimonides endorses
the prophets comparing the Creator with His creation as a vital means
Maimonides may have been unduly harsh on the Kalamic sages in this regard.
He dismissed as absurd the Kalamic belief that matter and time are composed of
atoms, and that there is a vacuum. (Guide I, 73) Yet the hindsight of scientic progress
shows that these propositions are not only possible, but veriable (though maybe only
quarks qualify as atoms philosophically speaking). Though the Kalamic thinkers
cannot have known of these evidences, an objective intellectual-historical perspective
might credit them with honest speculative attempts, not mere wish-fulllment. (LL)

foundations of maimonidess theology


for guiding the simple believers, but he absolutely rejects it when the
Kalamic sages offer it as the scientic truth. Thus the same pedagogical
consideration is the basis for endorsing the practice of the prophets but
for rejecting that of the Kalam.
We can explain Maimonidess interpretation of Mosess vision of
the back in the cleft of the rock in a similar fashion: Moses recognized
Gods wisdom in creation. Does this mean that Moses equated his
own wisdom in understanding the world with divine wisdom? At rst
sight the answer would seem to be positive. The basis of this identication is unavoidable even for the greatest philosopher,12 because he
is human and possessed of human intellect. But this is only the rst
stage of the dialectical process leading to the negation of the privation of wisdom in God. Thus Moses advanced considerably toward
knowledge of God.
In order for us to plumb the depths of Maimonidess meaning in
this passage, it will help us to recall what we said in connection with
his psychology. The human intellectual faculty is not a totally separate
entity. It is bound up with bodily functions, and its knowledge is not
self-generated but is gathered from outside itself through the sensory
organs. This is the source of the absolute difference between divine and
human reason. God is the cause of all existence, and therefore knows
it independently. This is a kind of knowledge that a human being not
only cannot attain, but cannot understand what it is. In that case, the
human has no other way but learning in stages, depending on sensory
organs, and therefore requiring a pictorial image which by its very nature
requires modication. This corrective process makes it possible for the
prophetic insight, which has its source in the intellectual emanation that
ows from God, to be absorbed across those barriers that have not yet
gone away, and will never completely dissolve so long as the intellect is
bound up with the body, for man cannot see Me and live.
Content of the Illumination
We thus arrive at a more nuanced philosophical explanation of the
mystery of silence that is the climax of the knowledge of God in

Aristotle. But Plotinus situated wisdom as an emanation slightly inferior in status
to the divine One (and so would the Kabbalah, making Wisdom the second Serah).
Maimonidess argument at this point seems to follow Plotinus rather than Aristotle.


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human mental representation. We see that Maimonides is referring to

that prophetic illumination that Moses attained when he arrived at the
highest level that a philosopher can achieve, namely the cognition of
the entirety of the Work of Creationphysics as the totality of all
terrestrial sciencesas one unied knowledge. In human knowledge,
however, this unity is composite and multi-faceted.13 However, we must
emphasize again here that aspect of Aristotelian epistemology that Maimonides had emphasized strongly in his discussion of prophecy, though
he seems to ignore it in his discussion of the attributes: Prophecy is an
emanation that ows from God to the intellect of that human being who
has prepared his intellect so that it may be a polished lens to receive
that enlightenment from above. It thus becomes clear that when the
prophet negates the privation of wisdomwhich he learned from his
terrestrial-scientic contemplation concerning God who is the source
of that realityhe has prepared himself for receiving that illumination of divine wisdom in human wisdom, and that is the perfection of
knowledge that he attained.
The Dialectical Thought-Process beyond the Attribute-Doctrine
The fact that Maimonides developed his doctrine of attributes on the
basis of considerations of pre-prophetic stages of thought, without
explicitly addressing the notion of that emanation that ows from
God Himself by the mediation of the Active Intellect to the human
intellect, brings the discussion to another dialectical turning-point, this
time beyond the doctrine of attributes, for it reveals the source of that
confused and erroneous notion that is found in the mind of every person with a ickering of intellect. We recall that just as the light of the
sun enables a person to see the world, so the emanation of forms that
comes from the Active Intellect enables a human being to identify the
forms of objects whose matter is perceived by his senses. This detail of
Aristotelian epistemology leads one to the following turn in the argument: If by reason of a persons dependence on sensory organs for
knowledge one cannot ever identify divine and human wisdom, so that

Indeed, the knowledge of mathematics and physics as systematic disciplines are
prime examples of entities that embrace unity and multiplicity at the same time, and
(on a Platonic view of truth as an ideal realm) could be advanced as a counter-argument against the oft-reiterated Maimonidean argument that anything characterized
by plurality must be corporeal. (LL)

foundations of maimonidess theology


one can only speak of them homonymically, nevertheless inasmuch

as human intellect is forever dependent on a higher source, namely the
Active Intellect, that receives its ow from God, that identication
must be not only possible, but necessary!
R. asdai Crescas, whose critique of Maimonidess doctrine of
attributes was mentioned earlier, directed this criticism at it as well:
Aristotle demonstrated that whatever we nd present in an effect must
derive from the cause. Thus whatever is found in the effect must be in
the cause as well. But if God is the cause of reality, then whatever we
discern in reality must be found in Him as well. The conclusion that
follows from this is that when a person gains knowledge and develops
his acquired intellect as a separate entity, it is constituted from those
items of knowledge that derived from the Active Intellect and is to that
extent identical with it! But Crescas ignored the fact that Maimonides
himself mentioned this in his theory of prophecy, and explained in
this way that creation of man in the divine image refers to his being
created as a rational being, for reason is the common element in God
and man, despite the substantive difference between them.14 On the
contrary, it would appear that without this additional idea, Maimonidess
exposition of the negation of privation as the way to knowledge of
God and his wonderful understanding of Moses in the cleft of the
rock, would be missing an essential part. Is this a contradiction in
Maimonidess thought? Certainly not. It is the dialectical turn that will
bring us to an even profounder explanation of the difference between
the philosopher and the prophet.
The Attribute of Existence
Before approaching this idea which takes us beyond the doctrine of
attributes proper, let us look again at the most difcult part of the
negative attribute theorydenying the attributes of existence, unity,
and eternity as positive attributes of God. It is especially hard for the
simple believer to deprive God of the attribute of existence. If we tell
him that it is forbidden to say God exists in the same sense that he
exists, he feels that God is absent. The convoluted assertion that God
is not non-existent is a doubtful remedy for his sense of alienation.
Nevertheless, he enters this discussion with the prior certainty that God


Guide I, 1, and see also I, 72.


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exists, even though he has never seen Him, and he has a notion or
image of this existence. What is its source?
First of all, we should mention the reason for saying that existence is
predicated of man and God in different senses (equivocally or homonymically). Maimonides argued that with respect to all other beings,
existence is something additional to their denition, not included in it,
which adds to their plural and composite nature, whereas we know that
God is one with an utterly simple unity. The essential consideration
in this formal argument is a distinction that we nd enunciated in the
Kalamic thinkers, and is included in the foundation of one of their
proofs for Gods existence: All created beings have contingent existence,
and require a cause to bring them into existence. That causenamely,
Godmust exist necessarily, i.e. His existence is identical with His
essence, and does not create plurality in Him.
This conclusion sounds logical and even simple. But can we grasp
it in our minds? Let us rst try to understand what it means, that in
our own existence we add existence to our essence. Is it possible to
distinguish between the essence and existence of things familiar to us?
Is it possible to know an essence of a thing without existence? Didnt
that thing exist outside of our thought before we learned of it, and
now that we have learned of it, it exists in our thought as well? Here
is a solution to the riddle: By existence we mean two things: (a)
existence of something (of a certain essence) outside our thought, and
(b) existence of that same thing within our thought. This demonstrates
that some things exist only in our minds, such as the idea of a work of
art in the mind of an artist before he creates it on canvas or clay But
it then exists in the same way that we exist in Gods mind before we
are creatednot as material entities, but as pure ideas.
This notion will help us to understand the assertion that God exists
necessarily, for He is the cause of our existence, as an idea that includes
in perfect unity the ideas of all entities of which He is the cause. It
is obvious that He does not exist only as an entity external to His
thought, but in perfect identity with that thought. Indeed we are not
able to conceive such a mode of existence, but we are able to understand why we cannot conceive it: we exist in the mind of God who
created us. Our physical existence is only a contingent one, and so we
cannot conceive how God had us in mind before we were created. We
certainly cannot conceive how God exists in His own mind, but our
awareness of that ignorance enables us to approach an understanding
of Gods existence as the negation of its privation. Furthermore, our

foundations of maimonidess theology


awareness of ignorance prepares us to receive that divine illumination

that is beyond conceptual expression (in silence), that gives a positive
meaning to the negative conception This is the source of the notion
of God that is implanted in our minds, and the source of the certainty
that if we exist, He exists, though in a manner of existence beyond
our comprehension.
Receiving the Divine Emanation
The dialectical understanding of the difference and connection between
divine existence and human existence will enable us to complete our
investigation of the doctrine of attributes from the standpoint of the
divine emanation that is received by the human intellect. On the one
hand, the human intellect, dependent on bodily organs, and learning
the very ideas by which it is constituted from an external source, cannot
arrive at a knowledge that is unied, complete, contiguous and enduring. Its dependence on the body is a barrier that cannot be surpassed
except through annihilation of that human individuality whose source
is in the body. Therefore, man cannot see Me and live. But on the
other hand, all the essences of which a person has knowledge have an
ideal existence in the mind of God who formed them, and they exist
necessarily on that level in the same way that God exists necessarily.
All the forms that exist accidentally and separately outside Gods
mind also exist necessarily and unified in their source. Therefore
whoever cognizes these forms, the more that his knowledge achieves
completeness, unity and continuity, the more closely he approaches the
understanding of existence as it is in the mind of the One who caused
it. Since God knows all of reality with a knowledge that is identical
with His essence, such a person approaches an understanding of the
divine essence. No one can arrive at such a goal in his lifetime, but
he can approach it ever more closely by advancing his knowledge of
physics and metaphysics, and by endeavoring to dispel from these ideas
the alienating features that arise from the accidental medium in which
they are expressed.
The objective of contemplating the negative attributes is this: To
rene the intellectual idea by freeing it from its dependence on the
material process that generated it. This is a process of correcting or
redirecting the human intellect in the direction of the divine intellect,
which ows toward and penetrates all reality on all its levels and in
all its aspects. When human intellect is properly directed, the divine


chapter eleven

essence is reected in it, and the clarity of that reection is dependent

on the extent to which one is puried from materiality, as well as on
the level of each persons general intellectual attainment.
These ideas are familiar to us from the parable of lightning illumination in the Introduction to the Guide and from the discussion of
the qualities of the prophets, but the denitive summarizing exposition is found in the end of Part III of the Guide. He presents there the
famous parable of the people who approach the kings palace. Some
do not know where it is, and they have their backs to it. Some know
the general direction, while others are standing next to the walls. Only
the privileged fewthe prophetsare face-to-face with the king in His
If, however, you have understood the natural things, you have entered the
habitation and are walking in the antechambers. If, however, you have
achieved perfection in the natural things and have understood divine
science, you have entered in the rulers place into the inner court and
are with him in one habitation. This is the rank of the men of science;
they, however, are of different grades of perfection.
There are those who set their thought to work after having attained
perfection in the divine science, turn wholly toward God, may He be
cherished and held sublime, renounce what is other than He, and direct
all the acts of their intellect toward an examination of the beings with
a view to drawing from them proof with regard to Him, so as to know
His governance of them in whatever way it is possible. These people
are those who are present in the rulers council. This is the rank of the
prophets. Among them there is he who because of the greatness of his
apprehension and his renouncing everything that is other than God, may
He be exalted, has attained such a degree that it is said of him, And
he was there with the Lord, (Ex. 34:28) putting questions and receiving
answers, speaking and being spoken to, in that holy place. And because
of his great joy in that which he apprehended, he did neither cat bread
nor drink water. (ibid.) For his intellect attained such strength that all the
gross faculties in the body ceased to function. I refer to the various kinds
of the sense of touch. Some prophets could only see, some of them from
close by and some from afar, as [a prophet] says: From afar the Lord
appeared unto me. ( Jeremiah 31:3)15


Guide III, 51, Pines 619620.

foundations of maimonidess theology


The Essential Difference between Philosopher and Prophet

Aside from the added emphasis on the connection between the level
of a persons general understanding of reality and his level of knowing God, and aside from the repeated parallel of the hierarchy of the
statuses of believers, from the simplest to the prophet, which have the
common denominator of directedness to the truth, this passage also
offers a denitive summary clarication of the central issue of the
essential difference between the sage (or philosopher) and the prophet.
Do they stand on the same level in Maimonidess view? Do they come
equally close to seeing the Kings face?
It follows from our entire discussion that with respect to their understanding of physics and metaphysics, there is no difference between the
philosopher and the prophet. Both have achieved complete knowledge
of these subjects and have arrived at the limit of human knowledge
in that respect. Nevertheless, there is a signicant difference in their
closeness to God, or rather in Gods closeness to them.
One may approach the task of physical and metaphysical enlightenment from three different motives: (a) Learning for its own sake out of
intellectual curiosity, which is a human perfection. (b) Learning for the
sake of instruction and leadership that strives to bring all humankind to
the same perfection. (c) Learning that strives to arrive at that volitional
cause that established all existence, in order to do its will and achieve
its purpose in creation.
In Maimonidess view, the philosopher learns mostly from the rst
motive and occasionally from the second, but not from the third,
which is the most important and elusive. We should emphasize that
Maimonides does not intend any personal criticism of the philosopher
in this respect, for he sees a close connection between the various
motives and the cultures in which people are educated. The philosopher
is the product of a terrestrial culture that denes human goals, even
of the spiritual variety, within the limits of ones natural perfections.
Whatever is not within the realm of mans proper natural perfection is
beyond the horizon of ones recognized obligations, for the real hidden
motive is personal perfection, conceived as personal happiness, not as
responsibility to the world that God created. Indeed, we may say that
this completely characterizes Aristotles outlook. It is in this spirit that
Aristotle conceived God as a perfect intellect that contemplates itself for
its own sake and has no interest outside itself. If He is the nal cause


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of all reality, that is because the potential forms embedded in primal

matter strive toward Him in order to arrive at their own perfection.
That is the outlook of the philosopher as well.
Not so the prophet. The culture shaped by the Torah directs him to
an ideal of leadership that is legitimated by his closeness to God. He
must rid himself of the materialistic, egoistic preoccupation with personal happiness and material prosperity. He must purify his intellectual
notions of the material limits that pose a barrier between himself and
God, whose will has called him directly to seek His closeness and do
His will, which is the transcendental perfection for which the prophet
strives. Not for his own sake, but for Gods sake. Not for the prophet
to ascend and become divinein Aristotles wordsby assimilating
metaphysics, but to return and act in the world as God acts, for the
sake of achieving good. To be sure, the level of existence that he
achieves by assimilating physics and metaphysics affords him a higher
standing, for he does not rest content with it but is able through it to
absorb the divine emanation that does not consist of new conceptual
knowledge but rather a spiritual illumination that passes through him
and by his agency enables the divine truth to be revealed in the midst
of his people and humanity generally.
Mosess Unique Achievement
What was just said applies especially to the unique manifestation
of Moses,16 the greatest of the prophets, who laid the foundations of
the Torahitic way of life which was the basis of the activity of the
other prophets. The special, unique aspect of his prophecy is inseparable from his primary role as founder. One may see a special grace
operating here. To be sure, Moses prepared himself with the help
of the tradition that had been received from the patriarchs of the
nation, but the attainment that he achieved in his founding role bordered on the supernatural. Maimonides regarded it as a true miracle:
a perfection that can only be explained as the revelation of the divine
will on the same level as was manifested in the creation of the world.

The philosophical purport of this account (excluding the miraculous aspect) does
not depend for its validity on the historicity of the Biblical accounts regarding Moses.
The critical Biblical scholar need only substitute for Moses whoever were the religious
teachers who in fact shaped the religious culture of ancient Israel and developed the
religious-ethical teachings of the Bible. (LL)

foundations of maimonidess theology


It is therefore tting to reexamine the question of the uniqueness of

Mosess prophecy in light of the theological considerations we have
just discussed.
Reconciling Two Views of the Prophet
In Chapter 7 of the Eight Chapters, which considers the prophet from the
standpoint of ethical theory, Maimonides argues that Moses disciplined
all his faculties to the point that there remained no physical impediment
to his spiritual goal, with the exception of the nal barrier, which was
the very connection of his intellect to his body.
In the continuation of Chapter 54 of Part I of the Guide, Maimonides
did not mention Mosess moral perfection, which was assumed as a
given, but emphasized the notion of ideal political leadership.
The revelation in the cleft of the rock occurs after Mosess severest
test as leader of his people. Moses passed that test by displaying his
readiness to act in terms of anger, vengeance, compassion and mercy in
the proper proportions without being motivated to do so by subjective
passion. He thus rose to the highest level of true leadership, which is
imitation of God through actions. To be sure, one cannot operate on
this level without rst achieving moral perfection. Just as the simple
believer should imitate his leaders, so should the true leader in guiding
his community imitate the action of God in nature.
Just as God in nature performs diverse actions without changing
His single purpose of the general good of the world, so the ideal
leader must perform diverse actions without deviating from the overriding goal of the general good of the community, which is to fulll
its purpose in creation. This is the meaning of the revelation by God
to Moses in the cleft of the rock of the thirteen attributes of mercy.
We discussed this topic in connection with the divine attributes. But
the divine attributes of action may be revealed to anyone who strives
for this, whereas Moses achieved a unique distinction in his personal
revelation. What is that distinction?
Maimonides answers this question in Chapter 54 of Part III. He
seems at rst sight to be repeating what he had said in Part I. But he
reverses here the order of topics implicit in Mosess requests. Moses
rst requested knowledge of the ways of leadership, and when that was
granted he proceeded to the more exalted request of knowing God
Himself, and was given a vantage-point from which to attain it in a
certain fashion. But in Part III, Chapter 54 the order is reversed:


chapter eleven
For when [ Jeremiah in 9:2223] explains the noblest ends, he does not
limit them only to the apprehension of Him, may He be exalted . . . But
he says that one should glory in the apprehension of God and in the
knowledge of Gods attribute, by which he means His actions, as we
made clear with reference to the dictum Show me now thy ways, etc.
(Exodus 33:13) In the present verse, he makes it clear to us that those
actions that ought to be known and imitated are lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness.17

Near the end of this chapter that concludes the entire work, he says:
It is clear that the perfection of man that may be truly gloried in is the
one acquired by him who has achieved, in a measure corresponding to
his capacity, apprehension of Him, may He be exalted, and who knows
His providence extending over His creatures is manifested in the act of
bringing them into being and in their governance as it is. The way of life
of such an individual, after he has received this apprehension, will always
have in view lovingkindness, righteousness, and judgment ( Jeremiah
9:23), through assimilation to His actions, may He be exalted.18

Thus the apprehension of Gods essence is taken here as a means to

proper governance, and not the reverse. Therefore some scholars nd
tension and even contradiction between these two passages. But it
seems on the basis of what we said earlier that it is more correct to say
that these two conceptions are not contradictory but complementary,
expressing contrasting aspects of a common problem.
In order to judge this, we should note that also in Chapter 54 of
Part III Maimonides states unequivocally that mans highest goal is
the conception of intelligibles, which teach true opinions concerning
the divine things.19 It is impossible to assume that Maimonides contradicted his own words so blatantly in the same chapter. The solution
is as follows. Maimonides presents the intellectual goal as a true philosophical doctrine. The prophets and the rabbis conrm this doctrine,
in his view, but they add to it the inuence that a perfected man exercises, in accordance with his degree of perfection, on those who are
led by him. The latter is the Torahitic-prophetic view of perfection.20
This throws into relief the matter by which prophecy is distinguished


Guide III, 54, Pines 637.

Guide III, 54, Pines 638.
Ibid., Pines 635.
It also agrees with the view of Platos Republic, transmitted to Maimonides through
Alfarabi, that the philosopher who has achieved enlightenment must return to the
cave to lead his fellow-humans out of it. (LL)

foundations of maimonidess theology


from philosophical contemplation. This is not a contradiction between

the prophetic and philosophic outlooks, but it shows clearly that the
prophetic outlook is based on the philosophic outlook and transcends
it. The evidence for this is found earlier, in Chapter 51 of Part III,
in which Maimonides describes the uniqueness of the patriarchs, and
especially of Moses. Their special greatness was expressed in their ability to conduct themselves, together with their families and their people,
in earthly matters without disrupting their intellectual attachment to
God. It follows that among these exemplary individuals, both perfections were of a piece. That is the superiority of the prophets over the
philosophers, for normally when a person is devoted to one perfection
he cannot apply himself to another, even though these two perfections
are interdependent in Maimonidess view. How, then, did the patriarchs,
Moses, and perhaps the other great prophets, succeed in arriving at this
level? The answer is that they overcame their bodily nature and freed
themselves of it, thus ascending to a status comparable to the Active
Intellect. Just as the Active Intellect knows itself actually and directs
the world on the strength of its self-intellection, so the prophet on the
level of the patriarchs and Moses knows his intellectual vision and on
the strength of that leads his community, and there is no contradiction
between these two activities which he performs together as one. In
the same vein we can say that the appointed prophet embodies on his
level with respect to the people the same role that the Active Intellect
embodies with respect to the world. In other words, he embodies in
his own person Gods providence in the world.
Mosess Uniqueness as Prophet: Withdrawal from the Material
If all this is correct, then we will be right in the judgment that in
Chapter 54 of Part I Maimonides assumes the same dependency
between Mosess perfection as ideal leader and his perfection in knowing God. We already saw that his understanding of Gods ways and
his knowledge of Gods back are the consequence of contemplating the same knowledge from different aspects. The knowledge of all
Gods goodness (i.e., the world) is on the one hand a condition of
ideal leadership, and on the other hand a condition for knowing God.
Whoever withdraws from material preoccupations and conquers them
merits both of these. It follows therefore that Moses attained complete
knowledge of physics and metaphysics as a philosopher, perfected his
ethical faculties, concentrated his entire thought on God, withdrew from


chapter eleven

material concerns, and so was privileged with revelation and leadership.

All this is understandable. Still, how are we to explain Maimonidess
claim that Mosess prophecy was such an exceptional event that it
bordered on the miraculous, and that no prophet before or after him
attained such a rank?
From everything we have said so far, only one answer is possible:
Moses freed himself of the connection between his intellect and his
physical faculties to an extent that dees possibility. He completely conquered his sense of touch, and transcended the requirement to satisfy
his bodily needs all the days that he was on Mount Sinai. Afterwards
his face was radiant with light, an expression of the spirituality that he
achieved. From that point on he withdrew from the camp and conducted
himself and the people without letting go of his attachment to God.
In truth, this degree of abstinence from materiality surpasses human
nature. As a consequence, Moses is able to stand on the Rock or to
stand with God and be with Him face to face. This means that unlike
other prophets whose intermittent illumination is compared to ashes
of lightning, Moses persists in a state of continual enlightenment, so
that one revelation follows another almost without interruption. We may
say that Mosess superiority to the other prophets is like the prophets
superiority to the philosopher. It is not a matter merely of content or
mode of apprehension. Rather, his complete perfection transforms a
difference of degree into a difference of essence. The other prophets
experienced their apprehension as a dream or a vision through the
mediation of the imaginative faculty; their prophecy was accompanied
by fear and trembling, and it was intermittent. Moses prophesied in a
waking state, without the mediation of the imaginative faculty, without
fear and trembling, and with complete continuity. All these are different
manifestations of a difference in rank. Moses transcended human nature
and achieved while still alive the status of a disembodied intellect. One
barrier alone kept him human in his uniqueness, and it was removed
by his deaththe death by a divine kiss.
How can a human being sustain such a level, according to the Aristotelian conception? This is a question we shall not deal with here.
But there are compelling reasons for Maimonidess claim that Mosess
prophecy was unique of its kind and supernatural, both with respect
to his leadership and his apprehension of God. For this event expresses
divine providence in human affairs, and the Torah that was given by
such a prophet can never be replaced by another. Furthermore, such
a Torah is not susceptible of addition or diminution.



God as Creator and World-Guide

Our philosophic understanding of Mosess uniqueness completes our
presentation of Maimonidess theological views with respect to human
knowledge of the divine. Prophecy combines humanitys relation to
God and Gods relation to humanity. But it is proper to consider this
central theological issue in its own right: What do we know about
Gods relation to humanity and to the world, as its cause or creator,
its director, its legislator and judge? At the center and foreground of
these issues stands the problem of divine will and the relation of Gods
will to His wisdom. Maimonidess Aristotelian psychology not only
raises the problem we raised with respect to the divine attributes
namely, ascribing wisdom and will to God as two distinct attributes.
It also poses the question whether will is a perfection that one may
ascribe to God in the form of a negative attribute. In Aristotles view,
willwhich expresses a persons need to obtain something from his
environmentis a major lack. God, the Necessary Being, lacks nothing. He has no needs to be satised from His environment, and thus
He has no interest in it. He knows Himself, and that is His perfection.
This is a profoundly pagan outlook, and the opposition between it and
the Torahitic outlook, based on the notion of a good and benecent
God, Whose perfection is expressed precisely in His active interest in
the world and in humankind, could not be more pronounced. If from
the standpoint of the human obligation to know God it was possible to
establish full compatibility of the Torah and philosophical outlooks, with
respect to Gods relation to the world and humankind a contradiction
stands out that is very hard to reconcile. Maimonides could overcome
it only by departing from Aristotelian theology and combining it with
Neo-Platonic elements.


chapter twelve

God as the Unity of Intellect, Knower and Known

Investigation of these topics should start with Chapter 68 of Part I.
After completing several loose ends of the theory of attributes (in particular the names of God), Maimonides opens here a new stage of his
philosophic deliberation by proposing the Aristotelian idea that God
is a unity of nous, noesis, and noeton (in Hebrew, sekhel, maskil, and muskalintellect, knower, and that-which-is-known). This applies to every
process of knowing, including human knowledge. Before one learns
some new item of knowledge, ones intellect (the sum of a persons
present actual knowledge) differentiates between the knower who
has not yet learned the new item and the to-be-known item that has
not yet been learned. After the new item has been learned, unity is
effected between the knower and the item that is now known. The
difference between the human and divine intellect is that the human
being is always in a state of becoming, whereas the divine intellect is
eternally the same. Some commentators see in Maimonidess adoption
of this view a contradiction with his theory of attributes, inasmuch as
it afrms the similarity of divine and human intellect and ascribes positive attributes to God. However, after his discussion of the attributes
of existence as applied to God, it is not necessary to show again how
such a contradiction can be reconciled dialectically. The problematic
that Maimoindes sought to raise through this notion becomes focused
on the question of the will, for in the perfect actual unity of intellect,
knower, and known the aspect of will is wholly superseded.
Philosophy as Authentic Torah-Tradition
It thus becomes clear that Chapter 68 does not continue the discussion
of attributes that was started in Chapter 50, but rather constitut